Blasphemy Law Under Fire amid Religious Violence in Pakistan

Two Christians in Pakistan have been taken into protective custody yesterday to protect them from militants who believe they are guilty of blasphemy and want to kill them, Release International has said.

Five Christians have been charged with blasphemy and others are linked with a case that has already led to a mob attack on a Christian colony in Punjab.

There are growing concerns that Christians in Toba Tak Singh could face further attacks from Islamist hardliners.

"The case graphically illustrates once again the need to repeal Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws which are wide open to abuse," says Andy Dipper, the CEO of Release International, which serves the persecuted church. "Pakistan's blasphemy laws are divisive and dangerous. They must be repealed. Please pray for the Christians of Toba Tak Singh."

The five Christians were charged with blasphemy after a squabble between children escalated into a mob attack on a Christian colony in the Punjab, causing Christians to flee their homes.

It is an illustration of how quickly tensions can spring up and get out of hand in a nation where blasphemy can be punished by the death penalty, RI has said.

Christian and Muslim versions of the story differ enormously. But both sides agree there was a squabble between youths during celebrations of Mohammed's birthday on 1 April.

According to Muslims, Christians snatched a religious sticker bearing the name Mohammed from a Muslim boy and began beating it with their shoes. They claim angry Christians then went round to the Muslim's home armed with a pistol and sticks and made insulting remarks against Mohammed.

However, the Christians say Muslim children beat up an 11-year-old child, Daniel, when he refused to play with them. This sparked a heated confrontation between Daniel's mother and a Muslim family, who then brought false charges of blasphemy to the police.

Lawyers and a Christian priest describe the case as "fabricated".

There have been many instances of the blasphemy law being invoked as an act of revenge to settle scores over the past year.

If found guilty of blasphemy, the accused may face life imprisonment or death, and even those who are acquitted risk assassination by extremists. Each time the law is invoked it increases religious tensions in the community.

The incident on 1 April quickly got out of hand, RI said. From his mosque loudspeaker a Muslim cleric denounced Christians for insulting the Holy Prophet and called on Muslims to gather to "teach them a lesson".

The cry was picked up by other mosques in Toba Tak Singh, an area known for religious extremism.

According to reports a mob descended on the Christian village and began stoning houses and beating men, women and children. Many Christians fled, but a disabled man was unable to escape. The mob attacked 25-year-old Ratan Gill, who had to be rescued by police in a baton charge. He was seriously injured.

Five Christians have been charged with blasphemy. The accused are Tanveer Masih, Salamat Masih, 16-year-old Rashid Masih, Shehla Masih and Boa Masih.

The case has been taken up by Release International's partners in Pakistan, CLAAS (the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement).

Two others linked with the case were taken before a judge on 3 May. CLAAS argued Shahzad and Shoukat Masih were arrested illegally and the high court in Lahore has released them.

CLAAS director Joseph Francis warns: "They are still under threat - fanatic groups are after their lives."

He added: "As a result of this incident the whole colony of Christians came under threat of attacks by extremists. Our Christian institutes, schools and hospitals - even our churches - are not safe here in Pakistan. Please pray, because the situation could become worse for Christians after this."

A spokesman for Sharing Life Ministry, Pakistan, another RI partner which is supporting the families, describes the situation as "very tense".

Through its international network of missions RI serves persecuted Christians in 30 countries, supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.

RI is a member of the UK organisations Global Connections, the Evangelical Alliance and the Micah Network.

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