Jawad Mazhar, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Five Pakistani Christians who were detained and charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 spend their first weekend in freedom Sunday, January 25, after they were freed from prison, but the news was overshadowed by reports of violence against believers, in which at two persons died died.
In remarks distributed by Compass Direct News agency, advocacy group Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP) said it had negotiated their release with Muslim leaders.
It said a Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his son Rashid, 16 and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih through “reconciliation” and out-of-court meetings between Muslim and Christian representatives.
“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” added SLMP representative Shahzad Kamran, adding that the “case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”
As a result of the meetings, Islamic clergymen reportedly agreed to issue a fatwa, or
‘religious edict’ declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses withdrew their testimony on January 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court, Compass Direct News reported.
The troubles began in April with an apparent quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny, SLMP said. During the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger, reports said.
A local resident, identified as Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, with an angry mob of some 2,000 Muslims attacking Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and “torturing” Christians SLMP said.
Christian Ratan Masih was among those injured while other Christians fled. Police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam, although they eventually ended up in prison at different times.
News of the release came as Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, said he wants Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws will be repealed as part of what he called his struggle for “religious freedom, human dignity and social justice.”
In a statement obtained by BosNewsLife he said, “Religious minorities have been neglected, victimized and oppressed in Pakistan.”
He said Christians still “faced constitutional and institutionalized discrimination and inequality.” However he added, “our government is committed to address the long-standing issues of minorities. We are making all-out efforts to uplift and empower minorities.”
Christian lawyers have issued an appeal to Bhatti and the government to urgently tackle the misuse of legislation to discriminate minorities, amid concerns over Islamic
extremism and violence.
In one of the latest violent incidents confirmed to BosNewsLife, two gunmen killed a
Christian soocial worker and injured his spouse on offering resistance during a robbery at Medina Colony, a town of Sheikhupura, near Lahore in Punjab Province, January 12.
Officials told BosNewsLife that Stephen Masih and his wife Zainab Stephen were attacked while going to a market when the robbers intercepted them and tried to deprive them of cash, cell phones and other valuables.
The Christian couple resisted, apparently provoking the rage of the robbers, who
sprayed bullets on them indiscriminately.
The shooting left her husband dead and Zainab Stephen critically injured, investigators said. While this seemed a robbery, investigators and rights groups have reported similar incidents in which religion appeared the main reasons for the attack.
A week earlier, suspected Muslim militants shot and killed a female dancer in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley for allegedly refusing to heed the radical Taliban group’s warning to abandon her profession.
Christian and all female education institutions in the area have also been forced to
close, BosNewsLife learned. There have been also several supsicious traffic accidents
involving Christians in the country, in which several believers were injured, police
officials have suggested.
Islamic groups have rejected the spread of Christianity in the mainly Muslim
nation, and militants have accused Christians of supporting the U.S.-led war on
terrorism, advocacy groups have said.