» 04/18/2011, 00.00
Accused of blasphemy, Arif Masih is now free, as fresh anti-Christian attacks go on in Gujranwala
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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Punjab: Christian couple touches Qur‘an with dirty hands, gets 25 years in prison
Munir Masih and Ruqqiya Bibi are convicted on the basis of the blasphemy law. In January, they were released on bail; now they are in two separate prison facilities. Extremist fringe put pressure, and perhaps corrupted police to find the right evidence to justify the conviction.
Pakistani Christians, from freedom to persecution
When Pakistan was created, its Founding Father Ali Jinnah endorsed the principles of religious freedom and equal rights for all, irrespective of caste or creed. The succession of constitutions that followed went counter to these ideals, and opened the door to persecution and violence against minorities. Beside blasphemy, Christians and members of other non-Muslim religions have to deal with the problem of forced conversions and marriages.
What can be done to abolish Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
Christian activists and members of civil society groups call on Islamabad to repeal the relevant sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. The fundamental principles of an open and multi-confessional society must protect every individual. At the bottom, a list of Pakistani embassies and diplomatic representations is provided.
Sialkot: Muslim businessman uses blasphemy law against Christian rival
Gulzar Masih and his son Suleman own a bookstore. They were forced to flee to avoid being attacked by a mob. Both are accused of burning a copy of the Qur‘an. In reality, they were set up by the older Masih’s Muslim business partner, who was envious of their success. Catholic priest bemoans the abuses linked to the ‘black law’ and warns that “extremist elements are getting stronger” in Pakistan.
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