Christian pastor in Pakistan held on blasphemy charge

British Pakistani Christians protest the Blasphemy Laws outside the Prime Minster's home.CLAAS-UK

A Christian pastor and three others are the latest to be accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, where the offence can carry the death sentence. The charges were laid after reports that some non-Christian local businessmen had become jealous of the business success of the accused.

Rapid intervention by the police meant that plans to set fire to homes and businesses of local Christians were thwarted.

Pastor Aftab Gill of the Biblical Church of God in Gujrat, Punjab, and three others have been accused of blasphemy because they used the Urdu word "rasool", which means apostle, in posters advertising a Christian ordination ceremony.

The word was used to describe Pastor Aftab's late father, Fazal Masih, who set up the church, according to CLAAS, a charity that supports Christians in Pakistan. The usage offended local Muslims as in Pakistan, rasool is used also to refer to the Prophet Mohammed.

Pastor Aftab's younger brother Unitan Gill, who runs a successful local grocery shop and also an English language school, was among those arrested. He was released on bail after CLAAS, the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, intervened.

Unitan told CLAAS that Muslim businessmen were jealous of his success and the alleged blasphemy was brought to the attention of police by rival Muslim grocers.

A local motorcycle shop owner told the charity Muslims were angry and planning to burn Christians alive and set their houses and church on fire but police controlled the situation. Some Christian families have fled but about 100 remain in the area.

Nasir Saeed, Director of CLAAS in the UK, said: "The word rasool has been used several times in the Urdu Bible as a translation of Apostle and disciples, and Christians, lay and clergy, used this word in their sermons and even in their writings.

"This is not an Islamic word but of the Urdu language, the national language of Pakistan and spoken by all Pakistani citizens, Muslim and non-Muslims alike, and cannot be attributed to Islam or the Muslim.

"To be offended over the use of such and other words and subsequently charging someone under the blasphemy law is very unfortunate.

"Since we know this law is being misused, the police and authorities need to be careful and avoid registering a case against anyone because of pressure from the public."

Blasphemy against any religion is a criminal offence in Pakistan. Besides Christians, Muslim minorities such as members of the Ahmaadi community also face frequent accusations. Many people have been murdered, including politicians who argued for repeal.