02/28/2005, 00.00
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Christian sentenced to seven years in jail on blasphemy charges

by Qaiser Felix
Police say he tore out pages of the Qu'ran. The law strikes the poor and the defenceless, says Bishop of Faisalabad.

Multan (AsiaNews) – Pakistan's blasphemy laws strike Christians again. Bashir Masih, a 30-year-old Christian, was sentenced to seven years in jail for desecrating the Qu'ran.

"It is a tragic situation. This law strikes at the poor, those who cannot defend themselves, the people who lack the means to be heard," Mgr Joseph Coutts, Bishop of Faisalabad, told AsiaNews. But according to the judge, Bashir Masih tore a copy of the Qu'ran to use in some occult practices.

Even though the sentence was pronounced on February 23 in the Civil Court in Chishtian, a town located in the diocese of Multan, the case did not receive any publicity. Local NGOs and human rights groups are still unaware of the case.

Mr Masih, who now has 30 days to launch an appeal to the High Court in Lahore, was arrested in August 2004 in the district of Bahawalnagar, after charges were laid against him for tearing pages out of a copy of the Qu'ran to write magic spells on them.

According to local police, Mr Masih confessed to the deed. However, doubts remain as to how the confession was obtained. Past experience shows that many blasphemy accusations were unfounded.

Masih's case is but the latest in a long series of victims—both Christian and Muslim—of the country's blasphemy laws, namely articles 295 B and C of Pakistan's Penal Code.

The first deals with offences against the Qu'ran (punished by the death sentence) and the second with defamation of the prophet Muhammad (punished by either a life or death sentence.

For many analysts, blasphemy laws are a tool in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists against minorities, a tool in their strategy of islamisation of the country.

Back in September 2004, Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz ul-Haq admitted that the law had been abused in the previous 18 years—between 1927 and 1986 there were seven recorded cases; after 1986, more than 4,000.

The Catholic Church and other minority communities have called for the immediate and total abrogation of these laws considering them an anomaly in the country's legal system.

For Bishop Coutts, the amendments introduced last October have not stopped abuses. They only dealt with procedural and not substantive issues and the laws still uphold the principle that offences against the prophet Muhammad are still a capital crime.

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See also
"We are optimistic," says Paul Bhatti as Rimsha Masih's bail hearing postponed to Friday
Lahore Archbishop condemns the umpteenth arrest of a Christian for blasphemy
Government "should publish data on conversions and anti-Christian attacks"
New proposal to change the blasphemy laws
Catholics urge government to protect religious minorities


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