By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
ISLAMABAD (Worthy News) - A Christian man who spent some 11 years in a Pakistani prison for “blasphemy” against Islam is hiding with his family in Pakistan after his acquittal and release, a friend told Worthy News.
Pakistani Pastor Asif Arthur of the U.S.-based Candlelight Christian Fellowship Church said he is concerned “Muslim radicals” may attack the 39-year-old Imran Ghafur Masih and his family.
Supporters who helped Masih with his release in late 2020 and their families are also at risk, said the pastor, who hopes a safe country will offer them asylum.
Arthur told Worthy News that Pakistani police detained Masih in July 2009 after he was falsely accused of intentionally burning pages of the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
While cleaning his brother’s retail shop, Masih reportedly removed the trash he had collected, intending to burn some of it. However, as he burned the trash, pages of an Islamic book flew into the fire, according to Christians familiar with the case.
His neighbor, Haji Liaqat, saw the burned pages and alerted other Muslims in the area prompting a riot, Pastor Arthur confirmed. “Following the accusation, a mob attacked Masih and his family and set fire to their home. He was then arrested and tried for ‘intending to outrage religious feelings and ‘desecrating the Koran.’ That is a blasphemy charge that carries a potential death sentence in Pakistan.”
On January 11, 2010, the Sessions Court of Faisalabad sentenced him to life in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($557) under Sections 295-A and 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
His case was appealed to the Lahore High Court but postponed nearly 70 times over the next 10 years, his lawyer said.
Masih was charged under the same blasphemy law that sparked international outrage after Christian woman Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy.
Under pressure, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Bibi, and she was eventually able to receive asylum in Canada in May 2019 after eight years on death row.
Like Bibi, Masih was jailed until the Lahore High Court acquitted him of the
charges on December 15, 2020. “Since that time, he was rescued, including by my friend Nadeem Anthony, an advocate, and [Christian activist] Samuel Inayat,” recalled Arthur.
“However, Masih and their families remain in hiding as radical Muslims are now threatening their lives,” he stressed.
“Being a pastor myself, I believe we are all part of one body in Jesus Christ and need to stand with our persecuted brethren,” Masih said.
“They urgently need to find a country willing to extend asylum where they can rebuild their lives as a refugee, and they can breathe freely with any
fears, stress, and depression.”
News about risks faced by Masih and families supporting him come amid growing concerns about devoted minority Christians in the Muslim majority nation.
Pakistan’s government has come under international pressure to release dozens of Christians held on controversial charges of blasphemy and tackle Islamic extremism.
This month a Christian man who spent four years in a Pakistani jail for alleged blasphemy was freed on bail, raising hope for other inmates in a similar situation, activists said.
Nadeem Samson, 42, was released January 6 after the Supreme Court granted Samson bail, according to sources familiar with the case.
However, his release came shortly after Pastor Zafar Bhatti, who is also accused of blasphemy, suffered a setback when his life imprisonment was turned into a death sentence.
The Rawalpindi District Court in Pakistan sentenced Pastor Zafar Bhatti to death this month after being jailed since July 2012 on trumped-up charges.
Critics say blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal grudges and helped create an atmosphere of hatred, sparking deadly riots.