2001-01-12 00:00:00

A Pakistani Catholic priest, two Catholic lay leaders and 14 Muslims were arrested Jan. 10 in Karachi after police used tear gas and batons on an interreligious march against misuse of blasphemy laws.

Father Arnold Heredia, 60, former executive secretary of the ecumenical Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf (justice and peace commission) based in Karachi, on Pakistan´s southeastern seacoast, was arrested.

The other two Catholics arrested are Aslam Martin of the same commission and Riaz Nawab of Caritas Pakistan.

At press time the three Catholic and 14 Muslim protesters are still in jail.

A local magistrate rejected their Jan. 11 application for release on bail and granted an initial police request for six days remand, until Jan. 16.

According to witnesses, Father Heredia appeared in court with his clothes torn, but looking well otherwise.

Father Heredia, former rector of the national Christ the King Major Seminary, has served human rights organizations in Pakistan for more than two decades. He currently serves as pastor of St. Francis Parish.

Some 300 protesters of the All Faiths Spiritual Movement International were marching to the governor´s house to submit a memorandum demanding an end to misuse of Pakistan´s blasphemy laws when police attempted to disperse them.

Scores of protesters, as well as a deputy superintendent of police and some police officers, sustained injuries in the scuffle, which saw police fire tear gas at the protesters and charged them with batons.

Most of the demonstrators were Muslims, although some were Christians and a few Hindus. They were carrying placards and banners demanding the review of all cases and sentences under the country´s blasphemy laws.

The melee started when police grabbed leaders of the march as they were talking to media, kicking and manhandling them before putting them in police vehicles, protesters reported.

A struggle between the demonstrators and law enforcers ensued and continued for some time, leading to confusion and panic at the Empress Market in Saddar, Karachi, and disrupting the flow of traffic in the area, they said.

In a press statement issued Jan. 11, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic bishops´ of Pakistan expressed its concern over the use of brutal force and the detention of participants.

"The act of the administration is gruesome and their action unjustified because the procession was totally peaceful and (the protesters merely) exercised their constitutional right of expression," the commission said.

It affirmed its "faith in building a non-sectarian and violence-free Pakistan," but pointed out that "it is imperative to do away with all discriminatory laws, including blasphemy laws and separate electorates, if Pakistan is to make any progress."

Afrasiab Khattak, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, expressed apprehension that use of excessive force against a small group was bound to increase the sense of fear among people attempting to question discrimination and extremist forces.

Meanwhile, Barelvi Tehreek-e-Pakistan, a Muslim religious organization, also strongly condemned the arrest and dispersal of the Jan. 10 marchers. Qazi Farooq Qadiri, the organization´s leader, demanded the early release of Father Heredia and the other detainees.

Father Emmanuel Yousaf and Peter Jacob, respectively NCJP director and executive secretary, demanded the unconditional release of the protesters and withdrawal of all cases against them.

"We also demand that the present government take affirmative steps to stamp out religious intolerance," they said in a joint statement.

Under Pakistan´s blasphemy laws, conviction for defaming Prophet Mohammad in any way carries a mandatory death penalty, while blasphemy against the Koran carries a penalty of life imprisonment.


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