(ADDS PROTESTS FROM CHRISTIAN GROUPS, COMMENTS)
By BosNewsLife Asia Service reporting from Pakistan
RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Arshed Masih, a Pakistani Christian who was burned by Muslim hardliners for refusing to convert to Islam, died early Tuesday, March 23, at the age of 38, his family told BosNewsLife. He had become a symbol of Christians facing persecution in Pakistan, suggested Life for All, a Pakistani advocacy group closely following the case.
Grieving relatives gathered at Rawalpindi Holy Family Hospital where Masih had been treated since Friday, March 19, when he was reportedly burned by at least a handful of Muslim religious leaders backed by police.
Masih was attacked in front of a police station in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, after he refused to convert to Islam, law enforcement and medical sources confirmed to BosNewsLife.
His Christian wife Martha Masih, 33, was believed to have been raped by possibly three police officers in the police station where the couple was held Friday, March 19, for questioning.
Their small children, ranging in age from 7 to 12, were allegedly forced to watch Friday’s attacks against their parents.
Police Superintendent Moin Shah told BosNewsLife that an investigation into the violence was ongoing. In a statement to BosNewsLife, the government of Punjab province where the attack took place, and the local police leadership, also said they were “condoling the grieving family”.
Masih’s family told BosNewsLife they are demanding a post-mortem examination before Masih’s funeral, which was to be held early Wednesday, March 24 at 10 am local time.
Rawalpindi Holy Family Hospital did not immediately want to comment on the family’s request. Doctors earlier said they were not able to save Arshed Masih’s life, with over 80 percent of his body burned.
The family said they may postpone the funeral if no suspects are detained and no case is filed by law enforcement officials against police officers allegedly involved in the rape and burning cases– a process known as a ‘First Information Report’.
As news of his death emerged protests broke out. Several Christian advocacy groups, including Life for All, Pakistan Christian Congress, the Progressive Movement and Protect Foundation Pakistan demonstrated Tuesday, March 23, in against the Punjab police.
It came a day after authorities asked Christian activists to cancel demonstrations, citing “terrorism threats.”
The advocacy groups expressed concerns about the future of widow Martha Masih and her three children and demanded “the arrest of the suspects and compensation” for the family.
The family was apparently expelled from the servant headquarters of their employer, influential businessman Sheikh Mohammad Sultan, who allegedly instigated the attacks.
Sultan got upset because Arshed Masih told him that he and his wife wanted to remain Christians, despite pressure from their employer and local religious leaders, Christians said. Since 2005, he reportedly worked as driver and his wife as a domestic servant for Sultan.
Last week tensions increased after Sultan reported a theft of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees (almost 6,000$), according to a document seen by BosNewsLife.
The Christian family members were not named as suspects in the so-called ‘First Information Report’ from police.
Sultan offered the couple to drop the case if they convert to Islam or “else that both would not see their children again,” according to sources familiar with the situation.
However, “Arshed refused to convert and stood firm in his faith. Arshed’s wife was raped by the police and he was burned alive,” Friday, March 19, local Christians said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security fears.
The businessman has not yet commented on the case. Witnesses said they had seen the business man near Friday’s burning incident, but it remained unclear whether he directly participated in the attack.
A BosNewsLife reporter saw the children sleeping in the hospital, saying they are homeless. Their mother appeared in shock and was not able to speak with reporters Tuesday, March 23.
The latest incident of anti-Christian violence follow several reports of attacks against minority Christians by Islamic militants, including by fighters linked to the Al-Qaida and Taliban groups.
Christians comprise less than five percent of the country’s mainly Muslim population of 175 million people, according to estimates by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). BosNewsLife Asia Service includes BosNewsLife correspondents often working in difficult circumstances. In some cases, including this report, their names are not mentioned due to security concerns. With editing by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).