Pakistani Islamists hold a poster displaying a portrait of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, during a protest in February against a Supreme Court decision allowing her to travel abroad. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
A court in the Pakistani city of Lahore has acquitted a Pentecostal preacher two years after his arrest for alleged desecration of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Judge Zafar Iqbal cleared Jadoon Masih of charges under the nation's penal code.
Masih, an ordained pastor of the Nasiri Pentecostal Church, was arrested by law enforcement officers on Feb. 2, 2017, two months after local Muslims reputedly found 150 pages of the Quran lying on the ground.
Some 100 of these pages were said to have been "martyred," according to a complaint filed at a local police station.
The name of a Christian faith healer named Babu Shahbaz was said to have been inscribed on the pages with a blue marker pen. It was alleged that a similar incident occurred in 2016. Shahbaz is now heading the Nasiri Church in Kamahan village near Lahore.
Lahore's High Court released Masih on bail in 2017. However, the 50-year-old kept living in hiding with his six children while his case was still under trial.
His defense attorney, Nadeem Anthony, told ucanews.com that although technically free, the pastor was not able to return to his church and had become a heart patient.
He allegedly suffered mistreatment amounting to torture while in custody for six weeks when investigators were said to have been under pressure from hard-line religious groups.
The Catholic lawyer has successfully defended four Christians and one Muslim woman who were all accused of blasphemy.
The alleged insulting of Islam has sparked lynchings in the Muslim-majority country. Hundreds of Pakistani Christians have fled abroad to avoid persecution and possibly death because of their religious beliefs.
Church leaders and human rights activists say many accusations stem from personal disagreements.
"We have to be very careful and keep a low profile," said Anthony. “The challenge is to avoid becoming a target while handling such cases. Still, the recent release of Asia Bibi was good news and gave courage to our judges."
Bibi, a Catholic woman, was acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row and she left Pakistan for Canada in May.
Releasing an annual report on international religious freedom last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Pakistan to do more to stop the abuse of its blasphemy laws.
Pompeo estimated that more than 40 people were serving life sentences or facing execution for blasphemy in Pakistan.