07/23/2013, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Punjab: Catholic couple accused of blasphemy

by Jibran Kahn
Shafqat and Shagufta Masih live in Gojra, a town in Punjab where eight Christians were burnt alive in 2009. Instead of investigating the affair, police forced the two to accept the charges. A local priest warns that "false allegations like this lead to years in prison for the innocent. Concrete steps must be taken once and for all to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law."

Gojra (AsiaNews) - The authorities in the town of Gojra (Punjab province) charged a local Catholic couple of blasphemy after a local Muslim man complained that the two sent him blasphemous text messages, insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Under Pakistani law, the two could be sentenced to death if found guilty.

Rana Muhammad Ijaz filed a complaint against Shafqat Masih, a disabled person who works as a caretaker at a local school, and his wife Shagufta, a waitress.

Police officers went to the couple's home and brought them to a police station. Both of the accused deny any wrongdoing. Shafqat complained that police put enormous pressure on them to accept the accusations against them.

Gojra is infamous for the atrocities committed in the name of the blasphemy law. On 31 August 2009, an angry mob attacked the town's Christian colony and set fire to Christian homes. Eight Christians were burnt alive whilst 40 houses and a church were destroyed in the fire.

For years, the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Pakistan have been calling for the repeal of the sectarian law, which has increasingly been used as tool of personal revenge.

According to data collected by the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of Pakistan, from 1986 to August 2009, at least 964 people have been charged under the law: 479 Muslims, 119 Christians, 340 Ahmadis, 14 Hindus and 10 of unknown religion. At least 33 extra-judicial killings were carried out by individuals or mobs.

"This is not the first time that things like this happen," a local priest, Fr John Samuel, told AsiaNews.

"We are close to the fourth anniversary of Gojra massacre," he said. "Minorities in Pakistan have been victimised in many ways. False allegations like this one lead to years in prison for the innocent. Concrete steps must be taken once and for all to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law. We strongly condemn what happened, and ask for an independent inquiry into the matter."

 

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