01/14/2023, 16.43
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Christian man in Islamabad accused of blasphemy over a social media post

by Shafique Khokhar

Ishtiaq Saleem is accused of posting pictures of the Prophet Mohammad’s name in Arabic tattooed on his body. Upon his arrest, he was beaten. His wife proclaims his innocence, saying that he is illiterate and the victim of a "conspiracy" based on religion. Pakistan’s electronic crimes law as well as blasphemy legislation are used to target religious minorities.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Another blasphemy case involving a Christian has been reported from Pakistan. The accused, Ishtiaq Saleem, was arrested on charges of defiling Islam and hurting the feelings of Muslims, by sharing offensive content about the Prophet Mohammed online.

The accusations stem from a video posted on social media showing the accused with blasphemous tattoos; however, his family claims that he is innocent, saying that he is illiterate, unable to understand the meaning of the Arabic words tattooed on him.

For human rights activists, this is further evidence of the kind of abuse,  Christians face, as more and more content and comments reflect growing restrictions on religious freedom.

The matter dates back to 20 November, but only came to light in the new year after a Muslim man, Muhammad Imran, filed a complaint.

Saleem Ishtiaq, a sanitation worker in Islamabad, was accused of posting blasphemous content on social media. As a result, he was arrested for electronic crimes (section 11 of the Electronic Crimes Act of 2016) and blasphemy (295 A, B, C and 298, A of the Penal Code).

When he was taken into custody, police beat him, took away his identity card and smartphone, forced him to "confess" to the crimes he was accused, and locked him up in prison.

Ishtiaq’s wife, Ghazal Ishtiaq, says that he is illiterate and would not commit any crime intentionally; in her view, he is the victim of a "conspiracy" against him on religious grounds..

"We have a two-year-old son,” she said. “The family is living in constant fear and trauma.”

Ishtiaq worked for over four months without getting paid, his father, Saleem Masih, notes. Calling on the Christian community to help, he warns that his son risks the death penalty.

Speaking to AsiaNews about the affair, the president of Voice for Justice Joseph Jansen reports that a growing number of accusations and arrests have been linked to alleged violations of the electronic crimes law; in the case of members of religious minorities, blasphemy is added.

Minorities live in an atmosphere of persecution with extensive use of blasphemy legislation with the authorities failing to assess the real intentions of the accused.

For activist Ashiknaz Khokhar, blasphemy is misused to settle personal disputes and social issues are given a confessional twist in order to claim that religion has been defamed..

Another human rights activist, Ilyas Samuel, added that those who use spurious motives to accuse and stir hatred are not prosecuted, while “innocent people who comment on social media end up being indicted and sentenced to death”.

In Pakistan, blasphemy has become a pretext for lynchings and extrajudicial killings.

Islamic extremists have weaponised the aforementioned legislation to strike against religious minorities without legal due process, Christians and Hindus, but Muslims too, avenging in the name of Islam any alleged offence to the Qurʾān or the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy accusations have become a quick way to exact appalling revenge and settling scores.

One example is that of Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi. A Christian mother of five, she spent years on death row. Her case caused a sensation.

Thanks to civil society groups, advocacy organisations, foreign governments and even Pope Francis himself, she was freed, but forced to flee to Canada to avoid revenge from extremist groups.

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