Jailed Pakistani Christian Evangelists Freed on Bail

Monday, January 22, 2001

Court Hearing in Jacobabad Set for January 30
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass) -- After eight days in jail, two Pakistani evangelists arrested in Jacobabad for distributing Christian literature and tapes of the documentary "Jesus" film were released on bail January 19.

Khalid Masih, 22, and Nasir Masih, 25, were arrested on January 11 by local police, who registered a case against them for "unlawful assembly" and "provoking public anger" under sections 151 and 108 of the Pakistan penal code.

The two unmarried men were among a team of eight Protestant Christians distributing literature and tapes among the Christian community of Railway Christian Colony in Jacobabad, in northern Sindh province.

The team of Christians was required to pay Rs. 60,000 (about $1000) in bail to free the two men as well as prevent the arrest of the others, a source close to the case confirmed to Compass. All eight will stand trial on the charges on January 30.

Local Muslims who obtained copies of the materials given to Christians reportedly took them to local "maulvis" (Muslim religious leaders), who then filed charges against the two men. "They tried to make an issue of it," a Jacobabad source said, "saying that these cassettes and books are against Islam. This is not true. It is absolutely false."

The complainants who registered the formal First Information Report were identified as Moulana Abdul Ghani Ansari and Moulana Hafiz Mir Mohammed Bunglani. The maulvis particularly targeted an introductory booklet for the "Jesus" film, claiming it contained "anti-Islamic material."

Local Christians said the two men, who were incarcerated in the Jacobabad District Jail, had been beaten severely by police authorities. They were not allowed visitors during their detention.

Shortly after the arrests, Muslim leaders reportedly staged a demonstration along local roads, demanding that a Baptist pastor and the principal of a Christian high school also be charged and arrested over the incident. The demonstrators claimed that Pastor Yousaf Masih, 32, of Christ Church in Jacobabad had been involved in the distribution effort and that Principal Bruener Newton, 34, of Victor Public Secondary School, supported it.

According to a report on the case filed January 17 by the Multan branch of the Justice and Peace Commission, "The maulvis warned that if the government does not arrest further mentioned persons, they will straight away shoot them dead."

Near midnight on January 14, shots were fired at the Victor Secondary School building. The following day, the locks of Christ Church were broken and some of the pastor's personal items were missing. The pastor, who is married with two children, temporarily fled from his home to avoid attacks or arrest.

A Sindhi-language poster distributed in the city after the arrests accused the Victor Secondary School of propagating an anti-Muslim campaign among its students. Started in 1985 by the Christian Social Uplift Organization, a local Protestant humanitarian group headed by Newton, the school has 1,000 students, mostly Muslim.

Local residents were urged to withdraw all Muslim children from the school. The poster also demanded that Deputy Commissioner Omar Rasool cancel the school's registration, claiming that the Christian staff members were teaching out of "anti-Islamic books" and distributing "anti-Islamic cassettes" to the students.

Under bail provisions granted by the court on January 19, both Pastor Masih and Newton were exempted from arrest, although they remain under summons to appear with the other defendants at the January 30 court hearing. Sardar Khan Lashari, a Muslim lawyer, will represent the group.

The "Daily Sindhu," a Sindhi-language newspaper published in Hyderabad, declared in a January 17 headline that the Christians had been arrested for "distribution of provoking books."

"The accused are free, who publish anti-Islamic books," the same newspaper declared after the two Christians were granted bail.

According to a source close to the case, mediators negotiated with the local Muslim community to reduce public tension over the case, leading to last Friday's bail agreement.

"Now the situation is a bit calm," a local source told Compass today. Still, Jacobabad's Christian community remains tense, knowing that eight of their number appear on the court docket next week for alleged "criminal offenses."

Although proselytism is permitted by law as a guaranteed religious freedom under the Pakistan Constitution, extremist Muslim elements claim that such non-Muslim activities insult Islam.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.