Pakistani Christian Jailed on Dubious Blasphemy Charge

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Anwer Masih jailed for commenting on Muslim’s beard.
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 27 (Compass) -- In an apparent attempt to settle an old grudge, a Pakistani man who converted to Islam several months ago has implicated a Christian acquaintance for alleged blasphemy.

Anwer Masih, 30, was arrested on November 30 by police officials in Shadhra, an industrial town on the northern outskirts of Lahore.

Two days before his arrest, Masih met a former neighbor in Paracha Colony whom he knew as Naseer Masih. Unaware that the man had become a Muslim about three months earlier and changed his name to Naseer Ahmad, Masih asked where he had been lately.

“I only asked him where he was living, as I hadn’t seen him for a long time,” Masih told investigators who visited him in prison several weeks later. “I further asked him about his beard, but Naseer gradually got infuriated, and started telling me that the beard was Sunnah (Islamic custom) and that every prophet had a beard.”

According to Masih, Ahmad scolded him for questioning his new beard, but the matter was settled after a few minutes and they parted.

But the next morning, Ahmad arrived at Masih’s house with about 100 Muslim militants from Muridke, 70 miles north of Shadhra. Although Masih was not at home, the mob of armed clerics surrounded the house, shouting death threats, throwing stones and trying to set the home on fire.

When neighbors and the district’s elected councilor, a Christian named Salamat Masih, intervened, the police were summoned to record Ahmad’s accusations against Anwer Masih. Although Ahmad’s initial statement objected to Masih’s alleged comments about his beard, it made no reference to any derogatory remarks against the prophets.

A few hours later, the police returned and arrested Masih’s mother, Ceema Bibi. But councilor Masih again intervened, winning her release after promising to bring her son to the police station.

The next day Masih was handed over to police sub-inspector Zulfiqar Cheema, who registered formal blasphemy charges against Masih and sent him to jail. Although the police official recorded statements by three Muslims who were not present at the disputed incident, he refused to accept statements from two Christian eyewitnesses.

“Anwer’s family handed him to the police because they were afraid the crowd would kill him,” councilor Masih told the Daily Times.

In the written First Information Report, Masih was charged under Pakistan penal code 295 (disturbing anyone’s religious feelings) and 295-A (slandering a religious prophet). This time, Ahmad’s statement claimed Masih had slandered the prophets and Islamic beliefs.

According to Paracha Colony residents, Ahmad carried a grudge against Masih from an incident two years ago, when Ahmad was indicted for severely beating one of his Christian neighbors. Shahzad “Gora” Masih, 23, went into a coma and still remains paralyzed from Ahmad’s beating. Anwer Masih had angered Ahmad by encouraging the victim’s family to register a case against their son’s attacker, his neighbors said.

Since becoming a Muslim, Ahmad has lived in Muridke at the Markaz-e-Tayyabba madrassah, an Islamic school linked with the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyabba militant group.

According to an in-depth Daily Times article on Masih’s case on December 11, the newly converted Ahmad “collaborated” with a local factory owner to falsely accuse Masih of blasphemy.

Maulvi Ilyas, owner of the Al-Firdaus Textile Mills, had reportedly been pressuring local Christians to change their religion. Ahmad’s own father, Payara Masih, had been employed at Ilyas’ factory for a long time, but “quit his job when Ilyas asked him to convert,” the Daily Times reported.

“Ahmad took my son Dilawar to the factory, where Ilyas offered him money and property to change his faith,” councilor Salamat Masih said. Another young Christian in the neighborhood, Sunil Masih, reportedly ran away from Ilyas without collecting his salary when the factory owner tried to convince him to become a Muslim.

Married with four children, Anwer Masih was a day laborer without work at the time of his arrest. He has been confined for the past eight weeks in the Lahore District Jail, where he shares a cell with two Muslim prisoners also accused under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.

Lower court hearings on Masih’s case were held on December 15 and January 12. Meanwhile, his defense lawyers representing the Lahore-based Center for Legal Assistance Aid and Settlement (CLAAS) plan to file a bail application on his behalf before the Lahore High Court on January 31.

The allegations against Masih “need to be investigated thoroughly, before it is too late and Anwer ends up spending a few years in jail,” a Daily Times editorial noted on December 13. “So far not a single conviction under the blasphemy law has been upheld in the higher courts.”

The editorial stated that the blasphemy law has been “thoroughly abused and yielded nothing but false cases and suffering for the people. If (the government) cannot reform this law, at least it should seriously consider making procedural changes in it to reduce the chances of its abuse.”