Christian farm worker becomes the latest victim of religious intolerance in Pakistan
Nadeem Masih shows a photograph of his murdered brother Saleem Masih in Bhagiana village in Pakistan's Punjab province on Feb. 29. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)
Christian farm laborer Saleem Masih was tortured for two hours for washing himself in a tube well owned by a Muslim farmer in Pakistan. He died on Feb. 28.
“We have to take a bath after unloading husk from a trolley. Even the cold weather doesn’t matter. The itching from chaff, stuck in our clothes, disturbs our sleep,” Nadeem, his elder brother, told UCA News.
“They threatened him with dire consequences when he cleaned himself after unloading a vehicle last week. They accused him of desecrating their water. He was already being warned about making TikTok videos in farms belonging to Muslim landlords.”
Masih was found lying in a cattle farm with serious bodily injuries on Feb. 25 in Bhagiana village, 90 kilometers southwest of Lahore in Punjab province. The 200 Christians living in the village mostly work as laborers and farmers.
“It was 7am. Local women reported that my brother was moaning in pain. He told the police about being chained, beaten and electrocuted by four men. They rolled a thick iron rod over his entire body. He was like a crushed sugar cane from a juice machine.”
Police arrested Sher Dogar, a Muslim landlord, and his partner but released them a few hours later. Masih, 22, was later taken to hospital and underwent surgery. According to a medical report, he died from total organ failure.
Lahore High Court has already accepted a pre-arrest bail petition from the alleged murderers, who accused Masih of stealing potatoes and turmeric.
“The police returned him home after first aid and recording statements. He then spent two nights in a wheelchair at a hospital due to a bed shortage. Nobody listened to us. My elderly mother wants justice. She wants them executed the way they killed her son,” said Nadeem.
More than 1,000 Christians attended Masih’s funeral at a Christian evangelical church located in front of his mud house. Punjab Minister for Human Rights, Minorities Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Ejaz Alam Augustine also attended.
Pastor Saleem Massey condemned “fanatical” landlords. “This is tyranny by powerful rascals. The minority community continue to suffer; they are considered the scum of the earth. The victim’s family and witnesses are being threatened,” said the pastor.
“Our patience gives us hope. The minister assured us of help and urgent action. Regular community meetings are being arranged in the church as we await the government response and discuss a plan of action.”
Khalid Shehzad, a Catholic human rights activist who headed a fact-finding mission to Bhagiana village, led a protest by pastors at Lahore Press Club on March 1 against anti-Muslim violence in Delhi.
“Hopefully the rally against violence in India will open the eyes of authorities against anti-Christian violence in Pakistan. We condemn atrocities in our neighboring country, but who will provide protection for our community?” he asked.
The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an interdenominational organization working for persecuted Christians, accused police of being bribed over Masih’s murder.
“They pressured the family to settle the matter. The case won’t be easy because the Pakistani police are often biased when it comes to matters between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is very unfortunate that even in the 21st century we have to see such incidents happening in Pakistan,” said CLAAS-UK director Nasir Saeed.
“This is not an isolated case. Such cases happen every day throughout Pakistan and are not reported in the media. The government has not taken any steps to stop torture and discriminatory treatment based on religion. Pakistani Muslim society has become more intolerant than ever and living as a Christian is becoming harder than ever. Christians are living under fear of their lives and see no future in Pakistan.”
Catholic activist Khalid Shehzad consoles Suriya Bibi, the mother of Saleem Masih, during a fact-finding mission to Bhagiana village on Feb. 29. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)
Church leaders have repeatedly complained of the lack of seriousness of successive governments toward targeted attacks and systemic discrimination faced by religious minorities. Masih died two days after Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed solidarity with minorities in Pakistan in a tweet.
“I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. Our minorities are equal citizens of this country,” he stated.
Last month a mob attacked a church under construction in a village in Punjab’s Sahiwal district. Azeem Gulzar, 25, was left mute and half-paralyzed after being shot in the head while his family tried to resist 15 armed men from pulling down the wall of the church. Two other Christians were injured.
According to researcher Asif Aqeel, untouchability is one of the major issues being faced by Pakistani non-Muslims.
“Among religious minorities, a foul odor is associated mostly with Christians. Ahmadis and scheduled caste Hindus also complain that people have sometimes refused to eat or drink with the crockery used by them. It is particularly common in rural settings but not absent in urban areas,” he said.
“Pakistani Christians, mostly Protestant churches and missionary institutes, have been the main non-Muslim group targeted by terrorists since 9/11. The perpetrators were almost never apprehended. Personnel of law enforcement agencies act differently when dealing with a non-Muslim.”
The annual report of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, the Catholic Church's human rights body in Pakistan, claims eight Christians were killed in 2018. These cases included terror attacks, rivalry with Muslims, police brutality and an acid attack.
The Ahmadi community claims 268 Ahmadis have been killed while 391 have been assaulted for their faith from 1984 to Dec. 12, 2019.
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