10/11/2006, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Faisalabad bishop: "Justice for two Catholics accused of blasphemy"

by Qaiser Felix

Mgr Joseph Coutts has called on the Pakistani authorities to ensure a proper high level investigation into the case of James and Buta Masih, accused without proof or witnesses. The local press has been accused of seeking to foment extremist hatred.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Mgr Joseph Coutts, bishop of Faisalabad, today urged the Pakistani authorities to conduct "a proper high level investigation" into the case of James and Buta Masih, accused without proof or witnesses of burning pages of the Qur'an.

The bishop was addressing a news conference attended also by Khalil Tahir, the Catholic attorney of the accused, Fr Yaqoob Yousaf, the local parish priest, Fr Aftab James, director for Faisalabad diocese of interfaith dialogue and Fr Nisar Barkat of the Peace and Harmony Centre.

Police arrested the two Catholics on 8 October when their neighbour Arshad Mubarak reported them after he "heard local people say Masih had burned pages of the Qur'an."

Fr Yaqoob said: "James Masih's daughter, Nargis, works as a maid for a Muslim family. On the afternoon of 8 October, her employer gave her items to throw away, as he had done other times, and she took them to her father's house to see what could be reused.

"After sorting out the things, they kept some and burnt some waste papers in the street. Both are illiterate: if they burned any pages from a holy book, then they were unaware of this." Further, the man who denounced them had sought to buy their home but had been turned down. His report could be a way of "teaching them a lesson for refusing".

Fr Aftab said some local newspapers had "focused on the story of desecration of the Qur'an without searching for the truth first." Some even described the 70-year old accused men as "two wretched young Christians who desecrated a sacred book. They are just seeking to increase extremists' hate".

Khalil Tahir, attorney of the men, said the Muslim family who gave the things to throw away to Nargis, James's daughter, was initially included in the investigation but quickly wriggled out. "All the blame has been put on two innocent and old Christians."

The parish priest told AsiaNews: "The situation in the area is very tense and Christians are afraid despite the police presence. The families of the two men who were arrested have fled and many others want to leave for fear of the extremists. Shops have closed and homes are barred."

Radical Muslim groups of Faisalabad are calling for "the two Masihs to be handed over to the population" and they have announced "the social boycott of any event where Christians are present".

The response of Mgr Coutts has been to request "calm and tolerance, the only ways to proceed with dialogue and harmony in the area".

Section 295 (B) of Pakistan's Penal Code, more commonly known as the 'blasphemy law', imposes life in prison or the death penalty for anyone desecrating Islam's holy scriptures. The law has often been used to settle private disputes.

It was recently partially amended to include the death penalty for those guilty of making false accusations of blasphemy. But even in the new version, anyone who defames Islam should still go to the gallows.

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