ucanews.com reporters, GujranwalaUpdated: July 28, 2015 06:08 PM GMT
Church leaders in Pakistan say that a court acquitting a Christian man accused of blasphemy vindicates their stand that the laws are often misused to pursue a personal vendetta against Christians in this Muslim-majority country.
"We thank God for the release of Arif Yousaf," said Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the Pakistani bishops' justice and peace commission.
"Since the very first day, we have been saying that the blasphemy law was being misused and poor Christians have been targeted for personal vendetta."
A Pakistani court on July 25 acquitted Arif Yousaf. He had been accused of committing blasphemy by desecrating pages of the Qur’an.
The incident had allegedly occurred in a village in Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, in November 2013.
Arif and his brother Tariq were charged with blasphemy after being accused by a Muslim of using pages from the Qur’an in firecrackers that they allegedly sold for use during a wedding. The two denied the allegations.
Arif was arrested while his brother fled to Thailand.
Church of Pakistan Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peter of Peshawar pointed out that a false accusation of blasphemy must be seen as a “state offense” as life becomes very difficult for the victims once they are charged with insulting the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad.
Nadeem Masih, who represented Arif during the trial, told ucanews.com that his client was acquitted and ordered to be released after the complainant withdrew his case.
The two brothers were falsely implicated due to their faith, according to Sardar Mushtaq Gill, head of the rights group Legal Evangelical Association Development.
"Arif wasn't involved in the business of fireworks. He was an employee of the Pakistani Railways," Gill said.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 1,000 people have been charged under the stringent blasphemy laws since 1986.
More than 50 extrajudicial killings have been carried out since the adoption of the laws.
Last week, Pakistan's Supreme Court formally agreed to hear the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy after she was found guilty of drinking water from a cup that was reserved for Muslim women.
Earlier, former Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer and federal minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated after they spoke out in favor of Asia Bibi.
In May 1998, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad committed suicide on the steps of the Sahiwal courthouse to protest against the death sentence of a Christian man convicted of blasphemy.
More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians.
Blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence in Pakistan. The state has not carried out any execution for this, but a number of people accused of blasphemy have been killed, some in prison or before trials ended. Blasphemy against the Qur'an is punishable with life imprisonment.
Church leaders have long charged the laws are abused for personal gain and that religious extremists are furthering their agenda by abusing the blasphemy laws.