04/18/2011, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Accused of blasphemy, Arif Masih is now free, as fresh anti-Christian attacks go on in Gujranwala

by Jibran Khan
Thanks to the action of the Masihi Foundation, which collected 50 affidavits from mostly Muslim witnesses, the 40-year-old christian man is now free. However, he is now living under protection with his family fearing new attacks. Yesterday, a mob of extremists interrupts Palm Sunday services in Gujranwala. Police respond by arresting Christians.
Lahore (AsiaNews) – Arif Masih, the 40-year-old Christian man arrested on 5 April on false blasphemy charges, was freed last night. Police dropped charges against him thanks to the strenuous efforts of the activists of the Masihi Foundation, who demonstrated his innocence. One of Arif’s Muslim neighbours, Shahid Yousaf, had accused him of tearing up a copy of the Qur‘an. The Christian man’s family has been in hiding in a secret location since the start of the affair.

Upon Arif’s release, the Christian Foundation, which is also monitoring the Asia Bibi’s case, whisked him away to safety in an undisclosed location protected by an armed escort fearing possible retaliation by Muslim extremists opposed to his release.

Meanwhile in Gujranwala (Punjab), tensions remain high after police took into custody 12 Christians who had protested an attack against a Christian village when a Muslim mob damaged a local church and disrupted Palm Sunday services.

On 5 April, police arrested Arif Masih, a Christian from Chak Jhumra in the Diocese of Faisalabad, on blasphemy charges. He had allegedly torn out some pages from a copy of the Qur‘an, and sent threatening letters to a group of Muslims, telling they convert to Christianity.

The accusation was made by one Shahid Yousaf, a neighbour with whom Arif Masih had had legal problems. Using the ‘black law’ as a pretext, Shahid tried to get back at his Christian neighbour.

The Masihi Foundation managed “to get affidavits from 50 witnesses, most of them Muslim, who reiterated Masih’s innocence, describing him as a peaceful man of sound character,” Haroon Barkat, the foundation’s director, told AsiaNews. Activists also “launched an international pressure campaign” and “kept in touch with Punjab government officials.”

Last Saturday, as Arif’s family was moving, they were attacked by enraged Muslim mob. “No one was injured”. According to Barkat, the attack was orchestrated by the local mafia, which is trying to get a hold of the Christian family’s possessions.

The Foundation has now placed Arif and his family in a safe hiding place, and found a school for their children. It has also provided them with money to live on.

“We decided to give him security and shelter” because fears persist that, as a free man, the 40-year-old Christian could “be killed at any time.”

Meanwhile, tensions are still running high in Gujranwala (Punjab), where hundreds of Muslims on Saturday attacked the Christian village of Khokarki who had protested against Muslim fundamentalists. The latter had organised a demonstration against a Christian man, Mushtaq Gill, and his son for allegedly desecrating the Qur‘an. The mob in fact wanted to “punish them publicly” before any police investigation was actually carried out.

The next day, Palm Sunday, Muslim demonstrators also interrupted Mass services, provoking a counter-protest by Christians, still angry over the arrest of Mushtaq, 60, vice principal of the Christian Technical Training Center (CTTC), and his son. The CTTC is a part of the theological seminary Gujranwala district of Punjab.

The Christian protest was led by Rev Eric Isaac and involved a group of 12 Christians demonstrating peacefully against the church attack. Christian sources said that Rev Isaac was able “to evade capture”, but police detained the other protesters.

The same sources believe the police to be in collusion with Muslim extremists. At present, the latter has not issued any statement on the matter.

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