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Blasphemy violence adds to Pakistan’s tension

LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) — Increased vigilante violence against Christians in Pakistan has caused a Muslim lawmaker to advocate anew for interfaith committees to investigate blasphemy allegations to deter injustice, Morning Star News reported today (Dec. 5).

Raja Zafarul Haq, a senator from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, called for the committees following the murder of Shama and Shahzad Masih, expectant parents falsely accused of desecrating the Koran.

Among other widely reported blasphemy cases in Pakistan: the continuing imprisonment of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother beaten by a mob in 2009 and placed on death row a year later, convicted of insulting the prophet Muhammad, and the arrest of a Christian blogger.

However, Haq recommended that Pakistan’s parliament discuss his proposal, which he first set forth two years ago, before any legislation is introduced to establish the committees nationwide.

Morning Star News quoted Haq as saying an investigative committee “should ascertain the facts, and in case the allegations are denied, then it should drop the charges against them,” Haq said during a meeting of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs.

Violence against Christians in the southwest Asian country has prompted religious freedom experts to warn that Pakistan is becoming increasingly extremist in its religious intolerance.

“The reality is that Pakistan is facing a serious problem,” religious freedom advocate Nina Shea wrote an in article with Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani scholar.

“The mushrooming of Islamist appeal within Pakistani society,” the two blogged at cnn.com, is “reminding us that we risk seeing the Talibanization not simply of a small minority of ordinary citizens, but large swathes of the populace of the world’s second largest –- and only nuclear-armed –- Muslim country.”

Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; Ispahani is a former member of the Pakistani parliament and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Three cases unfolded in November that spurred their dialogue and Haq’s recommendation.

The body of 28-year-old Shama Masih, five months pregnant, and her beaten and unconscious husband Shahzad Masih, 32, were burned to death Nov. 4 in a brick kiln by an angry mob of hundreds who accused Shama of burning pages of the Quran. Pakistani police have confirmed her innocence, as she was illiterate could not have known the pages were from the Quran, Morning Star News reported.

The wife had been cleaning her home in a village about 30 miles southwest of Lahore when she found amulets her late father-in-law had used in the practice of black magic. When a Muslim noticed the half-burnt papers, which may have contained Quranic verses, he accused the family of desecrating Islam’s holy book, according to reports from family relatives to Morning Star News.

The couple’s murder orphaned their four children, the oldest age 7.

In a continuing case Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, appealed on Nov. 24 her death sentence, asserting evidence in the case had been manipulated and was deficient for a conviction. Bibi is the first woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy. Her case began when Muslim women working beside her in a field said she was unfit to touch their water bowl and began to argue with her.

Bibi’s attorney, Saiful Malook, has expressed hopes for a timely resolution of her appeal in court.

“We expect an early hearing of the appeal and hope that the proceedings will be over in one year,” he said. A high court last upheld Bibi’s death sentence Oct. 14, and the latest appeal is her last legal recourse.

In a third case Qaiser Ayub, a 40-year-old Christian blogger from Lahore, was arrested after three years in hiding, accused in 2011 of insulting Muhammad in a blogpost. He had been accused of using derogatory language against Muhammad and posting “blasphemous” sketches on a website. A trial court declared Ayub an absconder in 2012, and he had remained in hiding until his arrest.

Pakistan has never executed anyone for blasphemy, but 17 people including five Christians currently are on death row there for “blasphemy.”

Such accusations spur mob violence, and anyone suspected of helping or defending those accused also is subject to death. In the past 25 years, 60 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy allegations, according to the Pakistani Non-Governmental Organization Awaz-e-Haq Itehad (AHI), Morning Star reported.

Since 1987, nearly 1,450 people have been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, a number Morning Star attributed to AHI. Of that number, 50 percent were religious minorities, including 182 Christians.

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