Lahore, Pakistan, Feb 16, 2021 / 11:40 am
Two Christian evangelists could face the death penalty after being charged with violating Pakistan's blasphemy law after an encounter in a park in Lahore prompted a complaint that they made derogatory comments about Islam.
"We here at International Christian Concern are concerned for the safety of Haroon Ayub Masih and Salamat Mansha Masih," William Stark, regional manager of International Christian Concern, said Feb. 15.
"We are also concerned for the safety of the broader community these men represent," Stark continued. "This violence is often not limited to those accused. There are many examples in which a blasphemy accusation has exploded into violence against an entire Christian community."
Stark called for a "complete and fair investigation" into the accusation against the two men.
International Christian Concern, an ecumenical Christian NGO, is based in Washington, D.C. It aims to promote awareness and advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians.
The complainant's statement is a source for one version of the incident, according to the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement-UK, an interdenominational organization that works on behalf of persecuted Christians in Pakistan.
The complainant said he and three friends were in Lahore's Model Town Park when the two Christian men approached them. The men introduced themselves, gave them a book, and started preaching about Christianity,
The complaint alleged that the Christian men said Muhammad had strayed on the path of religion. They allegedly said Muhammad had married to extend his lineage, while Christ had never married and continued his preaching. The complainant alleged that the two Christian men had said the Bible is a true book, while the Quran is not. He claimed that one of the men repeated this statement, hurting the Muslims' religious feelings.
The complainant wanted a case registered against the two men and the larger group distributing the Christian literature. He said all their literature that is blasphemous should be confiscated.
Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, Stark said even the accusation of blasphemy can have severe consequences.
"Too often Pakistan's blasphemy laws are misused to justify mob violence or settle personal vendettas," he said. "Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minority communities."
Accusations can spark mob lynching, vigilante murders, and mass protests.
Pakistan made its blasphemy laws more strict in 1987, when the death sentence was made mandatory for some violations. From 1987 to 2017, over 1,500 people faced a blasphemy accusation.
Over half of blasphemy accusations have been made against religious minorities. Christians make up about 1.6% of Pakistan's population, but 15.5% of blasphemy accusations have been made against them.
At present there are 24 Christians in prison due to blasphemy accusations.
Nasir Saeed, director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, said the Model Town Park incident is the second blasphemy accusation of the year.
"Last month a Christian staff nurse and gospel singer was charged under the blasphemy law," Saeed said. The woman denies committing blasphemy, and according to Saeed she claims "she was falsely implicated in the case by her Muslim colleagues because she used to tell them to do their duty honestly and not bother patients for money." The woman "respects all religions, including Islam," he said.
Pakistan's constitution and its laws do not restrict religious preaching, said Saeed.
"This is not a right that only the majority religion has. Pakistan has signed international conventions on religious freedom and freedom of speech, therefore Pakistan must respect them," he said. "Unfortunately, Pakistani society has been torn apart by intolerance and violence, a far cry from the original ideal of a tolerant country."
"Religious minorities are increasingly the targets of bigotry, which is often instigated by extremist forces, Islamic political parties and their leadership," Saeed added.
In July 2020 a U.S. citizen on trial for blasphemy in Peshawar was killed at a court hearing.
In September, a Christian man named Asif Pervaiz was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy for allegedly sending insulting remarks about Muhammad in a text message to his supervisor at a garment factory. His lawyer said he was accused of blasphemy only after refusing to convert to Islam by his supervisor, which his supervisor has denied.
Pervaiz's lawyer is appealing the sentence.
In October 2018, courts overturned the blasphemy conviction for Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who spent nearly a decade on death row. Some commentators said her acquittal and release was a promising sign for religious freedom in Pakistan.
On March 2, 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician in Pakistan, was assassinated by an Islamic terrorist group. Bhatti, the Federal Minister of Minorities Affairs, was the only Christian in Pakistan's federal cabinet.
Bhatti advocated for four member seats for religious minority candidates in Pakistan's senate. He spoke out against religious persecution, especially the misuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. His opposition to the blasphemy laws in particular prompted death threats. His cause for canonization has been opened and he is recognized as venerable in the Catholic Church.
Punjab governor Salman Taseer, another critic of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated in January 2011 by one of his own bodyguards who claimed the killing was a religious duty.