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Pakistan: Church pleads for Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states: “Religious freedom conditions across Pakistan continue to trend negatively. The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities—including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs—to Islam, severely restrict freedom of religion or belief.”

“Church in Pakistan pleads for Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy,” by Lisa Zengarini, Vatican News, July 5, 2024:

The Catholic Bishops of Pakistan have joined the Christian community’s outcry against a recent Punjabi court death sentence condemning a young Christian for blasphemy in connection with an anti-Christian riot in Punjab last year, saying it is an abuse of law again targeting religious minorities.

On June 29 Mr. Ahsan Raja Masih, a 22-year-old a brick kiln worker, was found guilty  by the  Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court under several articles of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly sharing an image of a damaged Quran on social media , thus “offending the sentiments of Muslims and trying to promote religious hatred.”

The anti-Christian riot in  Jaranwala

The post triggered the anti-Christian riot in province’s Jaranwala city on August 16, 2023 in which more than 25 churches and over 80 Christian homes were vandalized and many Bibles burned.

Blasphemy has been a capital crime in Pakistan since 1981, though no one has been executed by the government so far. However, in several cases, mobs take the matter into their own hands and lynch the suspects, and the legislation is often misused for false accusations against Christians and other religious minorities to settle personal scores.

Verdict contested by the Church

The death sentence has spurred widespread protests on social media and a strong condemnation from Christian leaders in Pakistan.

“We condemn this in strongest terms,” said Bishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, chairperson of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (NCJP). “This is the abuse of law, a travesty of justice,” Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad told UCA News.

Anglican Bishop Nadeem Kamran of Lahore said, “Such condemnations reflect the frustration of Christians,” constituting about 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s 241 million people.

Appeal to international community

In an interview to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, said that the Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court decision is “very, very painful for us and many people are disappointed.” Bishop Samson Shukardin called on the international community to appeal for justice: “The big international NGOs and human rights organisations should come out and say something opposing this decision. This will make a big impact on the government,” he remarked.

Father Khalid Rashid, NCJP director for Faisalabad Diocese, also condemned the judgement highlighting that that the image was shared by thousands of  people, “Mr Ahsan  is being singled out. He is being targeted,“ he lamented , also noting that he is not well educated and comes from a very poor family.  Father Rashid said the court came under pressure to issue a guilty verdict….

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