Punjab: after a Christian man is falsely accused of blasphemy, his family flees
by Jibran Khan
This morning, a court turned down his request for release on bail and remanded him in police custody. A Muslim accused him of offending Islam after the two discussed the Bible and the Qur'an. Now his family is hiding in fear. For Lahore priest, the charges are false and the accused was duped.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - This morning, a Pakistani court rejected a request for bail by a 60-year-old Christian man and remanded him in custody. Although he was accused of blasphemy, he is innocent of breaking any law.

Activists and civil society groups have called for his release, so far in vain. In the meantime, his family has had to flee their village for fear of retaliation as often happens when a relative is charged under Pakistan's "black law".

Naja Masih, a cleaner in a school for the blind in Bahawalpur, Punjab province, was arrested last month after he was accused of blasphemy under Article 295 A of the Pakistan Penal Code.
">According to the plaintiff, a Muslim barber named Shahid Mehmood, he insulted Islam and the Qur'an.

According to local witnesses, the Christian man and his accuser talked about religion on 23 August, comparing the Qur'an and the Bible. Unaware of the blasphemy laws, Mr Masih spoke about the prophet Lot, which led to the charges of offending Islam.

After the Muslim barber filed a complaint against him with police, he was arrested and brought to a secret location, without notifying family members, before any investigation was carried out.

His wife Nargis Bibi, and their children - Yaqoob, 30; Ashraf, 28; Anwar, 26; and Sunny, 24 - tried to get in touch with the right authorities to get information, but got nowhere. Meanwhile, they were forced to leave their home and village and are now in hiding for fear of attacks or violence by local Muslims.

After several days, his wife was finally able to meet him. He is "devastated," she said, still unaware of what had happened and why he was in prison. "We have done nothing. We pray that someone will help us," Nargis said.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Yaqoob John, a priest with the Archdiocese of Lahore active in blasphemy cases, said that "Our sources have confirmed that the accusations are false" and that Masih was "duped".

For the clergyman, the authorities should intervene and ensure "the safety of this family". He also called on people to pray for those who are persecuted "for their faith."

With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.

About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).

Scores of violent incidents have occurred in recent years, against entire communities (Gojra in 2009, and Joseph Colony, Lahore, in March 2013), places of worship (Peshawar, September last year) and individuals (Sawan Masih, Asia Bibi, Rimsha Masih and Robert Fanish Masih, who died in prison), often perpetrated under the pretext of the country's blasphemy laws.