Chaman Masih and Billo Bibi, the parents of Sawan Masih who has been convicted of blasphemy. (ucanews.com photo)
Two defunct CCTV cameras still hang lifelessly at the entrance to Lahore's Joseph Colony neighborhood five years after an arson attack by a mob of thousands following allegations of blasphemy.
The rebuilt house of Sawan Masih, 30, convicted of using derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad in a row with a Muslim friend, is located at the front of the Christian area in the Pakistani city.
The father of three is in Central Jail Faisalabad awaiting an appeal against a death sentence passed in 2014.
His mother, Billo Bibi, 50, visits Masih every month with her daughters.
"I used to call him Buri. We still pray for his release. My elderly husband has developed breathing complications since his arrest. He does not speak anymore. My daughter-in-law shifted to [live with] her parents," Bibi told ucanews.com.
"The prison authorities are planning to shift him to Sahiwal [170 kilometers from Lahore]. Travelling to another city was already tough. Now they are sending him farther away."
Every year on March 9, Bibi attends a candlelight vigil held at the gates of Joseph Colony to mark the anniversary of the 2013 attack by a mob that looted and destroyed 116 houses and two churches.
About 30 people including activists and locals offered thanksgiving prayers on March 9. Special prayers were also offered in both churches in the area.
Rawadari Tehreek, a movement promoting pluralism, marked the anniversary by holding a hunger strike the same evening in front of the Punjab Assembly. Several Christian leaders, including Church of Pakistan Bishop Azad Marshall of Raiwind, and the lawyer of accused blasphemer Patras Masih addressed the gathering.
About 100 protestors condemned the frequent attacks on religious minorities using the pretext of blasphemy and demanded a policy to stop the misuse of blasphemy laws.
They also shouted slogans for Sajid Masih, a 26 year old who jumped from the fourth floor of the Punjab headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency on Feb. 23 during interrogation in the presence of his cousin accused of blasphemy.
Billo Bibi holding a photo of her son Sawan Masih (left in image) who has been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. (ucanews.com photo)
Also in February, six Christians in Faisalabad were booked by police for allegedly blaspheming against poetry glorifying the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim complainant also alleged that the accused stopped him from writing the Kalima (Muslims' declaration of faith) on a wall. Earlier this month, a mob attacked worshippers at a Pakistan Gospel Assembly church in Sahiwal district of Punjab province.
The streets of Joseph Colony display many plaques of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif that were placed during the area's rehabilitation phase.
Church leaders and NGOs provided medical camps, food for six months and household items to people affected by the riot. However, no efforts were made to develop the living conditions of locals who are mostly sanitary workers.
"Things have to be dusted quiet often due to smoke descending from surrounding steel mills and recasting plants," said Tariq Anthony, a minority councilor.
"There are no government health facilities. The only school in the area has classes until grade five. The tap water carries zinc and other particles. Allergies are common. The nearest water filter plant is about five kilometers away."
The Christian activist has filed a fraud case against the district committee comprising local politicians and pastors whom he accuses of usurping a relief package from Canada. The session court in Lahore directed him to the National Accountability Bureau this month.
"The affected were meant to receive 120 million rupees (US$185,000), 84 motorcycles, 34 bicycles, 20 laptops and three tuk-tuks. The police refused to record my version. Three of the committee members have died. The others should fear God," said Anthony, expressing concern at the increase in blasphemy cases against Christians.
"When activists of Tehreek-e-Labaik [an Islamist political party] set tires alight and blocked part of the Grand Trunk Road last month, several people in my neighborhood left their daughters with relatives for few days fearing another attack," he said. "The majority thinks it's a good deed and jihad to kill those accused of blasphemy. Christians live in small pockets and cannot form mobs. We are weak. For us, it is safer to hand over the accused than risking the lives of the whole community.
"Religious minorities in Pakistan are usually suspected of being foreign agents. In other countries, they are singled out as extremist Pakistanis. The Christian asylum seekers trapped in Bangkok exemplify the adage of out of the frying pan into the fire."
According to the Center for Social Justice, 74 percent of blasphemy cases in Pakistan are recorded in Punjab, with more than 11 percent (173) in Lahore alone.
At least 75 people have been killed over mere allegations of insulting Islam. These included retired Lahore High Court Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who was part of a two-man bench that acquitted two Christian teenagers of blasphemy.