Pakistani Drops 'Blasphemy' Charge in Sangla Hill Case

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Christians are forced into uncomfortable compromise – and the accused is still in jail.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, January 11 (Compass) – A Pakistani Muslim in the Punjabi town of Sangla Hill dropped formal charges last week against a Christian he had accused of setting fire to pages of the Quran.

Mohammed Saleem’s accusation – broadcast over mosque loudspeakers in November – triggered a violent reprisal from local Muslims, destroying four churches and landing Yousaf Masih in jail for allegedly desecrating the Quran. Threats against the town’s Christians have continued since the November 12 attack.

As part of a reconciliation agreement reached by local Muslim and Christian leaders on Thursday (January 5), Saleem signed an affidavit declaring Masih innocent.

For their part, local Christian leaders agreed not to press charges against the mob of 2,000 Muslims who attacked the town’s Christian community. Police have held 88 rioters in custody since the assault.

In a gesture to the Christian community, Asif Jilani Sheikh of Punjab’s Provincial Assembly apologized on behalf of the rioters and requested the Christians’ help in defusing tensions.

Father Samson Dilawar of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Sangla Hill told Compass that Jilani Sheikh said, “We would like to request you to help us to release these 88 people, because we have so much pressure from these 88 families that are pestering us.”

Dilawar and a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Tajjamal Pervaiz, were among those who signed the agreement. Both their churches had been destroyed by the mob.

Case Not Closed

It is not yet clear how the agreement will affect legal proceedings.

Two days ago, a local court in Sangla Hill’s Nankana district reportedly refused to grant bail to the 88 rioters, even though they had appealed based on the new compromise. Yousaf Masih also remains under arrest.

“Actually, this compromise does not mean a stop to the legal process,” Dilawar stated. “It is an official process and it will go on. The agreement shows all the 88 affected families that it is not we [Christians] that are not doing anything to get their people released. The government is responsible for releasing them all.”

The agreement promises to end ongoing harassment against Sangla Hill’s Christians. Dilawar reported that since last week, Friday sermons at the local mosque have been free of anti-Christian hate-speech, and newspapers have discontinued inflammatory articles against the religious minority.

But many Christians are not satisfied with the compromise, seeing it as an all too common failure of Pakistan’s government to provide justice for its religious minorities.

“This [compromise] is because of the pressure, because we have been receiving threatening calls that they will kill us,” Dilawar mentioned. “So the Christians have to give in and say, ‘Okay, we will not pursue, provided that you also don’t pursue the case of Yousaf Masih.’”

Legal proceedings have been crippled by the government’s refusal to make public a judicial report completed on November 29 about the Sangla Hill incident. Police have also failed to arrest 20 suspects named by the Christian community as the true culprits behind the attacks. Among those accused are sub-district mayor Malik Muhammad Azam and Saleem, whose accusations against Masih triggered the event.

Judicial Report Withheld

The government also has yet to fulfill promises to cover the full cost of repairing the four churches, convent, mission-run school, and 10 homes that were destroyed in the attack. According to a local source, only one Catholic church has been partially renovated, and reconstruction has been at a standstill since December 24.

“It is a very frustrating situation where the government was not doing its duty,” Peter Jacob of the National Council for Justice and Peace (NCJP) told Compass. “They were just exploiting the situation, and you see it is not a just solution. It is not what we had expected.”

In the weeks after the attack, Muslim agitators tried to exact retribution for the alleged Quran burning.

On December 2, political and religious leaders addressing 3,000 men at the Jamia Masjid Rizvia mosque in Sangla Hill called for the public execution of Masih. Police forced mosque-goers to leave the building in small groups and flooded the town’s stadium so that demonstrators could not gather there.

In December some Christians fled Sangla Hill after Muslim activists threatened to kill them for not dropping charges against the imprisoned rioters. Dilawar and other Christian leaders received anonymous telephone threats on the heels of a December 29 announcement by Azam that several religious organizations planned to demonstrate against the arrest of the 88 Muslims.

Violence was only avoided after 12 platoons of police were deployed in the town, according to a December 31 article in the Daily Times.

Christians in Sangla Hill have complained that Muslim shopkeepers tried to stir up tension by using paper bags with pictures of Christian icons to package their goods.

“The Muslim community has been complaining that the Quranic verses are desecrated,” Jacob of the NCJP explained to Compass. “Now, of course, the Christians feel in the same way that no one should misuse Christian icons. This could have provoked some other incidents of quarrels between Christians and Muslims, or a shopkeeper and a customer.”

At a January 7 rally in Lahore, human rights groups and Christian organizations continued to call on the government to release the judicial report on the Sangla Hill incident. Many fear that the town’s Christians will face the same fate as their religious compatriots in the villages of Shantinagar and Chianwala.

In February 1997, a group of 30,000 Muslims went on a rampage at the Christian village of Shantinagar and at the nearby town of Khanewal, 100 miles from Sangla Hill. Although the mob burned down three churches and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of Christians, the final judicial report was never released.

In Chianwala, 50 miles from Sangla Hill, two men killed three worshippers and wounded 13 others on Christmas Day 2002 in grenade attacks on a Presbyterian church. The attackers were set free by the provincial High Court only nine months after their arrest.

Demonstrators at last week’s rally also demanded that the government repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, stating that they are consistently misused to settle personal scores. The controversial laws call for life imprisonment or the death penalty for blasphemy against the Quran or the prophet Muhammad, respectively.

As in the case of Saleem, who apparently accused Masih of blasphemy to avoid having to pay a gambling debt to the Christian, the laws also are misused for personal gain.

“We are feeling very helpless,” Dilawar admitted, requesting prayer and pressure from the international community to ensure that “the real culprits are apprehended.”

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct