Christians demand justice for Pakistan blasphemy suspects

New joint action group plans to hold peaceful protests to counter increasing violence and persecution of minorities
Christians demand justice for Pakistan blasphemy suspects

Pastor Riaz Malik leads a Lahore protest that was held on March 2 to support two cousins accused of blasphemy. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

Catholic and Protestant churches in Pakistan have started a movement to demand justice for Christian cousins accused of blasphemy.

"Justice for Sajid, Justice for Patras," cried Pastor Riaz Malik as he pointed his finger at a photograph of Sajid Masih, 26, who jumped from the fourth floor of the Punjab headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in a suicide attempt on Feb. 23 while being interrogated with his cousin.

Cousin Patras Masih, 18, was arrested on Feb. 19 for allegedly posting an insulting photo of the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad on a Facebook account.

Sajid Masih claims he was being punished for an act allegedly committed by his cousin and that security authorities had ordered the two men to engage in a homosexual act as they attempted to force confessions from them both. Critics say police duress in such cases is common in Pakistan.

Pastor Malik was joined at a protest on March 2 by more than 200 Christians including two Church of Pakistan bishops. Teams from Caritas Pakistan and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) also attended the protest in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore.

Speakers demanded an independent inquiry into the case, a fair trial and access to justice for the accused, who are from Shahadra near Lahore.

"We are all Sajid and Patras Masih. Do not push us to the wall. Sexual harassment by police is both immoral and irreligious. Sajid is a kid and a Pakistani. We demand proper medical treatment for him," said Bishop Azad Marshall of Raiwind in his address to the gathering.

Irfan Mufti, director of the South Asia Partnership Pakistan, condemned religious discrimination in state polices and laws. "Injustice will cripple this society. We are not here to demand mercy," he said.   

The protest was organized by the Pakistan Christian Action Committee (PCAC), which was formed at a March 1 meeting at the National Council of Churches in Pakistan. 

"The committee will function as a permanent ecumenical entity to counter the increasing cases of violence against minority Christians. Peaceful protests will be carried out all over the country until the Christian youths get justice. The ongoing persecution has become a national issue. We are also ready for martyrdom," said Pastor Amjat Niamat, convener of the PCAC.

Church statement

The CCJP said the torture of Patras Masih and Sajid Masih by FIA officials was a "gross human rights violation while being against the international obligations for the protection of religious minorities and also against the constitution of Pakistan."

Archbishop Joseph Arshad (CCJP chairman), Father Emmanuel Yousaf (national director) and Cecil S. Chaudhry (executive director) expressed their serious concern over the ill-treatment of religious minorities in a Feb. 28 press statement. 

"The hatred and systemic discrimination fabricated in our society needs to be ended through state intervention in order to protect persecuted groups. Serious reforms in light of human rights standards are required for law enforcement authorities and the judiciary, which have failed in their duty to protect minorities," they stated. 

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"The Supreme Court should take immediate suo motu action to withdraw the FIR (first inspection report) against Sajid Masih for attempted suicide because in the light of evidence he was attempting to escape from physical and psychological torture while also being forced to sexually abuse his minor cousin.

"Security should be provided for the accused and their family in order to prevent the real and present threat of violence and to take strict action against the perpetrators."

Sajid Masih has had surgery on his fractured legs at Mayo Hospital.

According to the CCJP, 18 cases of blasphemy were recorded in 2017. Accusations of blasphemy often result in mob attacks on minority communities.

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