Pakistan Releases Elderly Christians From Prison

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News

LAHORE, PAKISTAN (Worthy News) -- Two elderly Christian men could worship in freedom Sunday, April 19, after more than two years in a Pakistani jail on charges of blasphemy.

Catholic church sources said James Masih, 67, and 72-year-old Buta Masih, whose name has also been spelled as Boota Masih, were acquitted Thursday, April 16, when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year jail sentence.

The two men were accused of burning pages from the Koran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law as their their actions were deemed "to have created fear and panic," Pakistani Christians said.

They were convicted on November 25, 2006 of blaspheming the Koran, which Muslims regard as a holy book. Their case drew crowds of Islamic militants and rights activists had expressed doubts about the fairness of the trial.

The men's legal problems reportedly began after James Masih’s daughter, Nargis, who worked as a house servant, was cleaning the home of their Muslim employer and accidentally burned papers of the Koran.


"The Muslim employer gave newspapers and other waste papers to take home and burn...When they were burning the waste papers, the neighbors came and saw that there were some papers from what they see as 'the holy Koran'," said the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an influential organization working for Christians
being persecuted for their faith in Pakistan.

CLAAS and other advocacy groups defending Christians always maintained they were suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the eventual blasphemy charges against the believers. "Immediately, they extinguished the fire and called local police who arrested James Masih and his friend Boota Masih," the group explained.

Rights activists said that James Masih, who is illiterate, is believed not to have noticed that the objects he was burning included a copy of the Koran, which he never expected to find amid the trash from his daughter's employer.

After their arrest, James Masih and Buta Masih were sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine of 25,000 Pakistan Rupees ($310) each said regional perish priest Yaqub Yousaf, who closely followed the case.


"We are thankful to Jesus that he helped the innocent and Lahore High Court has acquitted them, so we are very happy at this judgment," Yaqub said in comments published by the Catholic news service AsiaNews. "But at the same time we cannot forget the sufferings of James and Buta and their poor families. They spent more than two years
in prison without doing anything wrong."

Pakistan's government has been under international pressure to end blasphemy legislation, which has led to the imprisonment of Christians in several parts of the country.

Nearly 900 people have been accused of blasphemy over the last two decades, AsiaNews said, citing figures from  the national Justice and Peace Commission.

It comes as the Muslim militant group Taliban has increased its influence in Pakistan, after its supporters were allowed to impose Islamic law in Pakistan's key Swat Valley. The group and clerics have made clear they want to extend this legislation across the country.