02/16/2007, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Fear, violence, ostracism face innocent “blasphemers of Islam”

by Qaiser Felix
Although they have been released by the court, survivors of the blasphemy law remain subject to social isolation and poverty because they are suspected of having offended Islam. Officials force Christians to convert in prison. Those who remain strong in the faith risk death at the hands of extremists.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – When police took him to prison, he protested forcefully that he was innocent. The police told him to be quiet because “Ghafar had denounced him for blasphemy and had admitted that they were together when they desecrated the Koran”.

Shahid Masih has just come out of prison. He spent “some time” there but does not recall how long. He was accused under Article 295 C of the Pakistani Penal Code, the notorious “blasphemy law” that provides for very heavy penalties (up to the death sentence) for those offending the Prophet or Islam’s sacred texts.

Shahid said “on the way to prison,  I continued to ask what was going on but no one talked to me other than to insult me. At the police station, I was beaten by police and in prison I was beaten by the other detainees. They treated me like a slave, making me do all sorts of humiliating work. But I never stopped praying to Jesus.”

His mother Alice is very ill. Despite the poor financial conditions of her family, she is “very happy that her son has finally come back home although he cannot work for the time being.” He adds: “The real tragedy is this. I was in prison and I was released because the court found me innocent but my life is over. No one wants to hire me and I am afraid to go out because people think I am a blasphemer who must die.”

Khalil Tahir leads the Adal Trust foundation which helps the Christian community to defend itself from unjust accusations. He told AsiaNews: “Most people accused under the blasphemy law are from social and religious minorities and that is why I fight for them in the courts and prison and also after they are released.”

Pervez Masih is a 33-year-old teacher. He was released on 8 April last after five years in jail. The court released him because it found him to be innocent but he still faces threats from the people. He cannot even build a house because he must be continually on the move.

During his trial, “a high official of the local administration invited me to embrace Islam and in return, they would withdraw the charges against me. I refused and my defence was not even considered. In prison, I saw at least 10 Christians forced to convert. I was lucky, God helped me to remain strong in my faith.”

Johnson Michael, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Trust said: “I have met many people but never anyone a person like Pervez. He is very strong in his beliefs and I am greatly inspired by his example.” The association is helping the teacher financially because like other former detainees, he cannot find a job.

Shahbaz Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, said: “It is sad that the law should say one thing and extremists another. I know people who cannot even go close to the places where they lived for years because they risk immediate death. And yet every day we hear about extra-judicial murders that go unpunished.”

Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission, said: “If someone is accused as a blasphemer, even if the court acquits him, his life becomes miserable in Pakistan and he has to live in hiding and poverty.” His family would share his fate, “losing all their social rights and condemned to live in ignorance and poverty.”

So far, “no has had been hanged by the law for blasphemy related charges but 24 people have been killed by extremists who are never apprehended.”

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