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Catholic villagers in fear after blasphemy allegation

Businessman in Pakistan offers large reward for death of man accused of watching anti-Islam video

Catholic villagers in fear after blasphemy allegation

Pakistani Catholics attend a prayer service for 70 people killed by a terrorist bomb attack on a Lahore amusement park during Easter. In a rural village not far from Lahore, a Catholic community is currently living in fear because of a blasphemy allegation. (Photo by AFP)

A tense calm has taken hold of a village in Pakistan's Punjab province following accusation of blasphemy against a local Catholic.

The village — Chak No. 44 — is located in Mandi Bahauddin district, some 125 kilometers from Lahore, the province's capital.

Intelligence officers, dressed as common civilians, roam the village's dusty streets to deal with any potential mob violence against the village's 300 Catholics.

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In response to an allegation that a local Catholics janitor watched an anti-Muslim video on YouTube, the local imam instructed the village's Muslims to boycott the Catholic community.

"We cannot buy anything from the shops, Catholics farmers are not being hired for work. They are only surviving on stored wheat grain," said one local, Amir Ayub.

Ayub said he has also been threatened because he called the police about the boycott call that he heard coming from mosque loudspeakers during April 29 Friday prayers.

Muslim villagers have also threatened the Catholics to convert or leave.

The janitor, Imran Masih, was earlier beaten and locked up by local Muslims, April 19.

Local Catholics later released Masih who remains in hiding despite police refusing to register a blasphemy case against him.

A local Muslim businessman Irshad Jhakar announced 1 million rupees (US$10,000) reward for killing Masih.

District police officer Yasir Gondal said some people are trying to exaggerate the situation on social media.

"Imran Masih is innocent," Gondal said.

"Human rights organizations are visiting the area as Christians sleep peacefully in their houses," the police officer said.

An interfaith committee is also liaising with village elders to resolve the situation, the police officer said.

Despite assurances, several Catholics have fled the area fearing mob violence.

The Catholic Bishop's National Commission for Justice and Peace in the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi is reviewing the situation and coordinating with journalists to keep up to date with developments.

Saeeda Deep, founder of the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies, visited several Catholic families in the village on May 13.

"They are very hesitant and afraid. Serious intervention by civil society, not mere reporting, is needed. Police cannot stay in the village forever," Saeeda said adding that 90 percent of such blasphemy related cases are driven by a property dispute.

"But we cannot build enough pressure because civil society is not permitted to hold protests against the blasphemy law," she said.

The penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan is either life imprisonment or execution.

Mere accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan have caused deadly violence against Christians and the desecration of churches in the past.

Two top officials, a Christian minister and a Muslim governor, have been assassinated after calling for reforms to the laws to prevent misuse.

According to a report by the Center for Research and Security Studies, 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990.

Last year 210 criminal blasphemy cases were filed in Punjab, the country's most populous province.

British Member of Parliament, Jim Shannon from the Democratic Unionist Party raised concerns about the well being of Christians at Chak No. 44 in a letter written May 12 to Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Shannon is chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities.  

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