Alarm over Christians being accused of blasphemy by text message in Pakistan

There are reports that a Christian couple in Pakistan have been charged with blasphemy over text messages they sent to a Muslim.

Rana Muhammad Ejaz, a Muslim, accused Shafqat Masih, 43, and his wife Shagufta, 40, in Gojra of sending him blasphemous text messages.

According to Pakistan Today, Masih has admitted sending the text messages from his phone using the sim card of his wife.

A charge sheet has been drawn up by the police in Gojra accusing the couple of blasphemy under Section 295-C of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which make it a crime punishable by death to make derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.

Although no one has been executed for blasphemy yet, appeals against death sentences can drag on for years, during which time the accused remains behind bars.

There are also concerns that Masih's confession was made under duress in order to prevent an outbreak of violence similar to that seen in 2008, when a mob of radicals rampaged through Gojra, burning eight Christians to death and torching dozens of homes and a church. The violence was triggered by a blasphemy accusation.

According to Pakistan Today, a local Christian human rights advocate said Shafqat claimed he had been forced to record his confession before the magistrate.

The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) has responded with alarm over reports of the case, which comes just two weeks after a Gojra court sentenced another Christian, Sajjad Masih, to life in prison for supposedly sending blasphemous text messages.

Nasir Saeed, UK coordinator of CLAAS, said the accusations against Shafqat and Shagufta must be thoroughly investigated.

"Blasphemy accusations are no joke in Pakistan. They can mean years languishing in prison without trial and death sentences that cause huge distress to the accused and their families, who often have to go into hiding just to avoid extremists taking the law into their own hands," he said.

"A thorough and unbiased investigation is necessary to ascertain the facts and whether blasphemy has indeed been committed or whether, as is often the case, this is simply another false accusation of blasphemy being used to persecute two Christians because of their religious beliefs."

Mr Saeed called upon the Pakistani government to take action to prevent misuse of the blasphemy laws against religious minorities.

He continued: "Accusations against Christians of blasphemy by text message reflect an alarming trend in Pakistan. The accusations are often made on the basis of little or no evidence, and the punishment far outweighs the crime.

"The Pakistani government must take immediate steps to remedy this bias and injustice at the heart the legal system.

"The country's laws should be there to protect Christians, not enable others to destroy their lives out of religious prejudice."