Pakistan: Christian ‘murdered’ in police custody

A Christian man accused of desecrating the Koran has reportedly been murdered in prison in District Sialkot, in Punjab.

Robert Masih, 20, was taken into police custody in a bid to pacify Muslim extremists who went on the rampage in the village of Jathikai Tehsi Samberial on September 11, attacking churches and the homes of Christians.

They reportedly carried out the attack in response to calls that had gone out from local mosques urging Muslims to “teach Christians a lesson” following Masih’s alleged desecration of the Koran.

A mob had gathered in the village earlier in the day before turning on a church used by Catholics and Protestants and burning it to the ground, according to Pakistani TV channel Express. The pastor of the church, Dilshad Nasir, was badly beaten by the mob when he refused to leave his house and the village.

When the Centre for Legal Aid and Assistance (CLAAS), a Christian support organisation, sent a team of lawyers to the town, local Muslims armed with crude weaponry tried to attack them before police intervened. Around 35 Christian families were also moved out of the village over fears for their safety.

Bishop Samuel Pervaiz of the Church of Pakistan told CLAAS that the violence was linked to Masih’s relationship with a local Muslim girl. He had apparently teased the girl by throwing her copy of the Koran onto the ground. The bishop believes the charge of blasphemy was made against him by the girl’s mother because she disapproved of his relationship with her daughter.

The bishop informed the CLAAS team that Masih had been taken to the district jail on September 14. He was found dead in his cell the following day with cuts on his forehead, wrist, legs and neck.

CLAAS rejects the claims of local police officials that Masih committed suicide. Instead it believes that the marks on his neck were caused by strangulation.

According to one news report, the chief minister of Punjab has ordered a high level inquiry into Masih’s death but CLAAS fears any investigation will be merely for show.

At a press conference in Sailkot this week, CLAAS director Joseph Francis condemned Masih’s death and appealed for justice for persecuted Christians in Pakistan, particularly victims of the blasphemy law.

He also called for a credible investigation into Masih’s death and for police to treat the case as suspected murder.

“For religious minorities these laws have proven to be a catastrophe which can surface anytime anywhere,” said Mr Francis, who was joined at the press conference by Asma Jahangir, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

With 18 Christians accused of blasphemy and seven towns and settlements attacked this year so far, 2009 has been the worst year of violence connected to alleged instances of blasphemy.

CLAAS believes the violence against Christians in Korian and Gojra in August has set a dangerous precedent for Muslims elsewhere to misuse the blasphemy law without fear of punishment as a means of settling scores with Christian rivals.

In spite of the deaths of eight Christians in Gojra, the Pakistani government has done little to address the widespread abuse of the blasphemy laws and to end the climate of aggression towards Christians.

At the press conference, Mr Francis added that the Pakistani government should acknowledge that the blasphemy law is being abused and take steps towards its removal from the Pakistani Penal Code.

Nasir Saeed, coordinator of CLAAS UK, said there was an “urgent” need for the Pakistani government to protect its Christian citizens.

He said: “Christians in Pakistan are literally dying for their faith. The government needs to admit that this is happening, that the blasphemy laws are being abused by Muslims who see them as an easy way of suppressing Christians, and it needs to repeal them immediately.”

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