Ashiq Masih (center), husband of Christian woman Asia Bibi who faces the death sentence for blasphemy, leaves the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Oct.13, 2016. Asia Bibi is one of 185 blasphemy cases involving Christians counted by a report during the period 1987-2014. (Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP)
When a Muslim man who burned a Quran was declared "mentally unstable" by police in the central Pakistani city of Muzaffargarh was beaten, local Christians said they would have faced much harsher treatment if the culprit had been a had been Christian.
Unrest gripped a Christian village in Muzaffargarh district, after local Muslims found Sajjad Hussain Awan burning pages of the Islamic holy book outside a mosque. Awan was detained and beaten March 25 before being handed over to police.
Local Christians joined in the protests and blocked roads for six hours condemning the burning of the Quran. Some 25 police officers were deployed in the area for three days.
However, police said Awan burned the pages of the Quran by accident. "Apparently, he is mentally unstable. He has a hobby of burning papers. It was cold at night and he mistakenly took the holy pages as scrap," Ayyaz Ahmad Khan Pattafi, station house officer at Rangpur police station, told ucanews.com.
However, local Christians pointed out that had the culprit had been Christian, things would have been different. Allegations of insulting Prophet Mohammed and desecrating the Quran have sparked violent incidents before in Pakistan and the country's blasphemy laws have been used as a pretext for attacking Christians.
Anjum James Paul, a Catholic professor, said police should be similarly understanding in all blasphemy cases. "The burning of the Quran would have been disastrous for local Christians," said Paul, Chairman of Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association.
"Non-Muslims [accused of blasphemy] are not even given the chance to explain. Houses and villages have been burned by charged mobs as biased police officials watched helplessly. We demand a fair investigation and equal treatment for Christians implicated in such sensitive cases," he said.
The latest report on religious minorities in Pakistan by the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace said 712 non-Muslims were accused of blasphemy from 1987-2014. These include 501 Ahmadis, 185 Christians and 26 Hindus.
Hyacinth Peter, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference, urged the government to take action against religious leaders who mobilize mobs in wake of such incidents.
"Blasphemy requires a thorough investigation irrespective of faith. Unfortunately, the so-called lovers, soldiers and protectors of Islam surpass all these requirements and the accused is silenced, sometimes forever. Misusing highly sensitive blasphemy laws is also blasphemy," he said.
The Catholic Church has long been campaigning for equal rights of religious minorities and highlighting the injustices they are subjected to because of blasphemy laws. Christian leaders have long campaigned against the misuse of blasphemy laws that have led to many incidents of mob violence.
The law mandates that anyone who "blasphemes" the Quran is to be handed a death sentence.
Church leaders have long charged that the laws are abused for personal gain and that religious extremists are furthering their agenda by abusing blasphemy laws.
The prime example of this was the lynching of Shehzad Masih, 26, and his wife, Shama Masih, 24, in Kot Radha Kishan, Punjab.
On Nov. 4, 2014, the Christian couple was beaten to death and then burned by an angry mob that had been told that they had desecrated a copy of the Quran. Local clerics used loudspeakers to incite the mob.
In November 2010, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for "blasphemy." The sentence has to be upheld in higher court before it can be executed.