08/10/2005, 00.00
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Christian charged with blasphemy released

by Qaiser Felix
Despite his newly found freedom, Yousaf Masih's life is still at risk. He is in hiding to avoid Islamists' threats. Islamic political parties still call for his death, whilst minority rights activists announce a national campaign against the Blasphemy Law.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) –Yousaf Masih, a Christian man jailed for blasphemy in Pakistan, and his family are still in danger. Islamic extremists from Nowshera, in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), are angry at the court's decision to release him. They still want him in jail without bail and then want to see him hang.

Shahbaz Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said that Yousaf Masih, 60, was released on August 6, even though Judge Rafi Ulla had been reluctant to do the same in July. In the end tough, "God answered prayers from around the world," Mr Bhatti said, and "the judge accepted our appeal and set Masih free on a US$ 4,200 bail".

"It is big victory for us," he added, "because the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (an alliance of six influential religious parties that governs the NWFP) was demanding the death sentence for Masih".

Many extremists were outside the courthouse waiting for the decision, chanting slogans.

After bail was accepted, the jail superintendent himself asked Mr Masih's friends to take him to a safe place because his life was in danger.

The facts of the case are known. Mr Masih, a sweeper by profession, was arrested on 28 June for allegedly desecrating the Koran. At his workplace, he was asked to burn some papers. But unbeknownst to him, these papers included some verses of the Qu'ran.

Bhatti said that Masih is an elderly man with a weak heart, a man who was beaten up by the police and who has received more threats, a man who constantly feels insecure, who is scared and who is still mentally under shock.

"Thank God that he is back with his family. Unfortunately, he must stay in hiding to stay alive," the APMA's chairman said.

Publicity about the Masih affaire in the NWFP has led to growing intolerance by Islamists towards Christians.

"Some shopkeepers are refusing to sell to Christians and the principal of a girl's college has refused admission to some Christian applicants," Bhatti said.

"Blasphemy legislation is bad; it is like a sword of Damocles hanging over Pakistani minorities, in addition to being a clear violation of human rights," he said.

The APMA's chairman has called on the government to repeal the law and has told AsiaNews that he was going to hold a press conference next week in Islamabad to present a campaign against discriminatory laws, in particular the Blasphemy legislation.

The latter is made up of section B and C of Article 295 of Pakistan's Penal Code. The first section imposes a life sentence on anyone found guilty of offending the Qu'ran; the second provides that any defamatory statement about the prophet Muhammad carries a life sentence or even the death penalty.

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