By BosNewsLife Asia Service and reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
LAHORE/GLASGOW (BosNewsLife)– An advocacy group urged Pakistan’s president Wednesday, April 17, to release Christians accused of defaming Islam and halt “the misuse of blasphemy laws” after court proceedings against a man whose alleged “derogatory remarks” about Islam’s Prophet Mohammad sparked riots in Lahore city.
“We are profoundly concerned over the growing religious intolerance and extremism in Pakistan,” said Sheraz Khan, the chief executive of the Glasgow-based Global Minorities Alliance (GMA), which also supports Pakistan’s minority Christians.
In an open letter to President Asif Ali Zardari, he said his group would continue holding protests unless the Pakistani leader explains in writing which steps the Pakistani government “has taken since the March 9 violence [in Lahore] to avoid possible future misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.”
He told BosNewsLife that his group had already demonstrated outside the Scottish Parliament against the legislation and to condemn the Lahore violence in which as many as 180 Christian-owned homes, shops and two churches were burned down by angry Muslims.
“We will stage protest demonstrations not only outside the Scottish Parliament but also outside the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Houses of Parliament in London and outside the United Nations office in Geneva in Switzerland if we do not hear from you in writing until the 7th of July 2013,” the open letter quoted Khan as saying.
CHRISTIAN STREET CLEANER
The comments came after a Christian lawyer applied for the release on bail of the alleged blasphemer sparking the clashes, 35-year-old Sawan Masih, a Christian street cleaner who has denied the charges since his March 9 detention.
“There was a bail hearing in the Session Court of Lahore,” Monday, April 15, said his lawyer Sardar Mushtaq Gill in an interview with BosNewsLife.
In court papers, seen by BosNewsLife, Gill called the charges “false, frivolous, baseless and concocted.”
Gill, who is also national director of the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD) group, told BosNewsLife that he and Sawan’s family members have visited the prisoner in Camp jail Lahore and prayed with him.
“Sawan’s mother,sisters and brothers wept bitterly when they met with Sawan Masih,” he said. Yet,”They were very happy to see and visit Sawan Masih, especially his sister and mother”.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday, April 17, when and if the release on bail will be granted.
Gill told BosNewsLife he has doubts about the way the police investigation was conducted.
“Complainant Shahid Imram”, a former friend, “mentioned that Swan said ‘Our Jesus will come back again and must come back, and He is the Son of God’,” recalled Gill, citing a police report.
Imram also accused Swan Masih of making “some derogatory words about the prophet of Islam” but he made those allegations “only after second thoughts and consultations” with others, “which makes the story of the prosecution highly doubtful,” Gill explained.
If convicted, the Christian could face the death penalty under article 295 C of the controversial legislation.
Additionally, GMA expressed concerns about Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is on death row in Pakistan. “We urge you to give presidential clemency to Asia Bibi,” said the open letter to Pakistan’s president.
The 42-year-old Bibi was sentenced in 2009 and has been jailed ever since while awaiting her appeal against a death sentence on blasphemy charges.
Earlier this year, a high-ranking Vatican cardinal also wrote to President Zardari asking for the release of Bibi. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, vice dean of the College of Cardinals, called for a “gesture of clemency” in the February appeal.
More than a dozen people are known to be on death row over blasphemy allegations and over 50 people have been killed while awaiting trial on similar charges, according to rights activists.
Christians comprise less than 4 percent of Pakistan’s over 193 million mainly Muslim population, according to official estimates.