By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - A high court in Pakistan has acquitted a Christian father who spent years on death row for blasphemy against Islam, his defense team confirmed to Worthy News.
Sawan Masih, 32, was convicted in 2014 and faced execution by hanging for using derogatory terms about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. He allegedly made the remarks in a row with Muslim Shahid Imran, a barber.
Following the blasphemy allegations in 2013, thousands of angry Muslims attacked the Christian community of the Joseph Colony in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, where Masih lived. Christians groups estimate that mobs torched over 170 Christian homes and two churches, despite a police presence.
No one was reportedly killed, but many Christians fled the area. The local government of Punjab province got eventually involved in rebuilding the colony, church sources say.
The Lahore High Court division bench headed by Justice Syed Shehbaz Ali Rizvi announced Masih's acquittal on Tuesday, said the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement (CLAAS).
The CLAAS group was involved in advocacy and provided lawyers for the Christian man. "After eight years of relentless efforts today, our prayers were answered, and justice was upheld," explained Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK.
He said CLAAS' lawyers argued that Sawan Masih "was falsely implicated in this case with wrongful intentions by the land mafia."
Lawyers noted that contradictions in witness statements led to the acquittal.
Saeed told Worthy News that his group is now "working for Sawan's safe released from jail." That isn't easy as Muslim extremists have threatened Christians acquitted of blasphemy.
Trial observers have compared his acquittal to that of Christian woman Asia Bibi in 2018. In that case, Pakistan's Supreme Court also noted contradictions in witnesses' statements. However, she had to flee Pakistan to Canada amid death threats.
Bibi's trust brought global attention to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation, which carries a death penalty. Rights activists say mere suspicion of blasphemy against Islam is enough to ignite mob lynching in Pakistan, an Islamic nation.
Realizing these dangers, Pastor Simon Peter of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Joseph Colony plans a careful thanksgiving prayer for Sawan Masih and his family this week. "We shall pray silently for the government and the judges. There will be no banners or celebrations," he added.
However, "Praise the Lord. Our hearts are filled with joy," the pastor stressed in published remarks ahead of his October 9 prayer service. "Our prayers have been answered after a long time. His acquittal is a miracle in this Lordation."
Christian supporters have questioned the fairness of the trial. While Masih was on death row, an anti-terrorism court acquitted in 2017 more than 100 Muslims accused of being involved in the arson attack on Joseph Colony.
Nadeem Anthony, one of Masih's lawyers, told the Catholic UCANews agency that he has mixed feelings about his client's release. "We welcome the freedom of the father of three. But who will repay the loss and inhuman treatment they met? His family spent months living outside their charred house," he said.