Two Christians, 18 and 14, accused of blasphemy in Pakistan
Babar Sandhu Masih was resting after lunch on 18 May when he heard a commotion outside his house in the Qurban Lines neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan.
Masih went outside to find his neighbour, policeman Zahid Sohail, beating his son and another Christian boy. His son Adil, 18, and 14-year-old Simon Nadeem Masih, who lives nearby, had been engaged in light-hearted banter when Sohail accused them of committing blasphemy, he said.
"Sohail initially alleged that he was walking past the two boys when he overheard them 'disrespecting' prophet Muhammad and then laughing over it," Masih said. "He started beating Simon, and when Adil tried to save him, Sohail attacked him too."
Masih, a Catholic who paints cars at a local auto workshop, said neighbours soon gathered, and Sohail repeated his accusations.
"Both boys flatly denied Sohail's allegation and said they had said nothing that involved a mention of the Muslim prophet," Masih told Morning Star News. "When local elders of the neighbourhood asked Sohail to substantiate his accusation, he failed to satisfy them and left."
The father of four children, Adil being the youngest, said that Race Course police station officers raided his house later that evening and arrested Adil. They also took Simon into custody, saying that Sohail had registered a case against the two under blasphemy statutes.
"We were shocked to learn the contents of the First Information Report [FIR] in which Sohail alleged that Simon had called a puppy 'Muhammad Ali,' and both boys then joked about it," Masih said.
They were charged with blaspheming Muhammad under Section 295-C of Pakistan's blasphemy statutes, which calls for the death penalty. Muhammad Ali is a common name in Pakistan, the first name attributed to Islam's prophet and the last to Hazrat Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth caliph.
Masih said the allegation was "completely baseless," as Sohail had made no mention of a puppy when he first raised the issue.
"No one in our street has dogs, and neither was there a puppy in the street when this incident took place," he said. "Sohail cooked up a false accusation against our children after failing to convince the locals about his earlier allegation."
Masih said that his wife was a heart patient and also has suffered two strokes.
"She doesn't know yet that Adil has been arrested on such a serious charge, and I don't know how long I'll be able to withhold this news from her," he said. "She'll be devastated."
Adil left school a few years ago and was training with him to become a car painter, he said.
"I was able to meet Adil briefly on Friday [19 May], when police brought him to the court for obtaining the boys' judicial remand," Masih told Morning Star News. "Both boys were in a state of shock and fear and are still unable to understand why Sohail had gotten them arrested."
At least 500 Christian families live in the Qurban Lines neighbourhood, and there had been no religious tension in the area in years, he said.
"Sohail does not have a good reputation in the locality, which is why many locals did not take his allegation seriously," Masih said. "Our Muslim neighbors have known us for years, and they know we would never indulge in anything that could hurt their religious sentiments."
Police should have investigated the veracity of the allegation before arresting Adil and Simon, he said.
"Now we don't know how long our children will be made to suffer in prison due to this false charge – this is sheer injustice," Masih said.
Napolean Qayyum of the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice said that they were helping the two families in arranging legal support for their children.
"The FIR registered by the complainant reeks of mala fide, yet the police showed traditional haste in arresting the two boys," he said. "We are hoping that the boys will be released on bail soon."
Several people have been lynched over false accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan.
At least 57 cases of alleged blasphemy were reported in Pakistan between 1 January and 10 May, while four blasphemy suspects were lynched or extrajudicially killed during the same period, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice and People's Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR).
The data shows that eight incidents occurred in January, a significant increase to 17 cases in February, seven cases in March, another surge to 19 cases in April, and six cases in May (up to the 10th), totalling 57 accused individuals.
The highest number of blasphemy cases, 28, were reported in Punjab Province, followed by Sindh Province with 16, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with eight, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir with five.
In response to these alarming figures, retired Justice Nasira Javaid Iqbal, the patron-in-chief of PCMR, urged the government to stop the misuse of the harsh laws.
"The blasphemy laws have been consistently misused to settle personal disputes, persecute minority groups, and incite mob violence and hatred," she said in a press statement. "We demand prompt action and a collective effort by the government to address these human rights violations."
Last week, a court released on bail a Christian woman charged with blasphemy after she and a Muslim co-worker were accused of intentionally burning papers containing Quranic verses.
Mussarat Bibi, 45, and Muhammad Sarmad worked at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School in 66-EB village, Arifwala tehsil of Pakpattan District. On 15 April, both workers were told to clean the school's storeroom that was filled with paper and other scrapped items. The duo reportedly gathered the wasted paper and other scraps in a corner of the school and set them on fire. Some students later noticed that the burnt items also contained holy pages.
They were charged under Section 295-B of the blasphemy statutes and sent to Pakpattan Jail on judicial remand. Section 295-B states, "Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Quran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life."
They were released from prison on bail on 13 May.
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors' 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.