Christian Pastor Accused of Blasphemy in Pakistan Found Innocent
Last year, Pastor Babu Shahbaz was arrested and jailed after being accused of committing blasphemy in Pakistan. According to the accusation, Pastor Shahbaz was alleged to have torn pages of the Quran and dumped them in the street, a crime punishable with life imprisonment. Last week, the Lahore High Court released Pastor Shahbaz after finding the evidence against him unconvincing. False accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan are common and often motivated by religious hatred or score settling. Will Pastor Shahbaz be able to return to a normal life?
12/11/2017 Pakistan (Asia News) – The Lahore High Court has released a Protestant pastor on bail, detained for almost a year on charges of blasphemy. A copy of the verdict was sent to Asia News, in which the judges write that the Rev. Babu Shahbaz is “innocent”. His lawyer Nadeem Anthony reports with joy, “I thank the High Court for giving justice to this innocent Christian.”
On 6 December, Pastor Shahbaz was able to embrace his family. He was arrested on December 30, 2016 in the village of Kamahan [a suburb of Lahore, ed.], after a group of local Muslims found 150 pages of the Koran torn in the street. According to the accusers, the name of the pastor was printed on 100 pages.
Locked up in Lahore’s Jail Camp, the Rev. Shahbaz was accused of insulting the prophet under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code, a non-bailable offence carrying life imprisonment.
Judge Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan’s verdict reads: “The accused allegedly made an extrajudicial confession in police custody, therefore, same is not admissible in evidence. Polygraphic test is a weak type of evidence and the same cannot be relied upon blindly,” Justice Khan added. “No page of the Sipara (chapter) allegedly recovered from the possession of the petitioner was found to be torn. Mere recovery of a blue marker from the possession of the petitioner is by itself not sufficient to refuse bail to the petitioner because a blue marker is available in almost every second house of big cities of this country.”
Having ascertained the innocence of the Christian, the judge granted him the return home, upon payment of 200,000 rupees (over 1600 euros). Attorney Nadeem Anthony claims that, “minor courts are influenced by group pressure. I made no promises to the victim’s family. I only asked that their requests be heard. Similar cases require difficult work because of religious sensitivity on the issue. Often victims can not return to lead a normal life in their environment, because society ostracizes them.”
Haji Nadeem registered the complaint, claiming that torn Quranic pages were found in the road as he and his companions were on their way to mosque for Friday prayers. On a hundred of the pages were written the name of Babu Shahbaz Masih in blue marker. Police immediately detained Babu Shahbaz Masih, together with his wife and daughter, for their own safety. A large number of security personnel were deployed to the area to ward off trouble.
Haji Nadeem, a local Muslim shopkeeper and politician, is apparently jealous of Babu Shahbaz Masih’s brother, another shopkeeper, and is reported to be resentful of Christians for not supporting him in recent elections. There also appears to be ill-feeling towards Babu Shahbaz Masih by a local pir called Baba Gujjar, who lives on the street where the torn pages were found. A pir is the South Asian term for a Muslim spiritual guide in the Sufi tradition (mystical Islam) to whom Muslims go for healing and other requests for divine intervention. Baba Gujjar has been losing followers because many Muslims instead went for healing to Babu Shahbaz Masih’s home where he held special prayer meetings for healing. Personal grudges lie behind many “blasphemy” accusations in Pakistan.
Under Pakistani law, there is a mandatory life sentence in prison for desecrating the Quran. Local Muslims are amongst those who have voiced support for Babu Shahbaz Masih, affirming his innocence.
Christmas Facebook message from prominent Pakistani Muslim brings accusations of “hate speech” and “blasphemy”
A complaint of “hate speech” has been made by his fellow Muslims against Shaan Taseer, son of Salmaan Taseer, the former Punjab governor who was murdered in January 2011, and a formal case registered against him. Muslim hardliners, not content with this, are pressing for him to be charged with “blasphemy” which carries a death sentence.
The complaints come in response to a Christmas message which Shaan Taseer posted on his Facebook page. In the video message he requested prayer for minorities exploited under the “blasphemy laws”, laws which he described as “inhumane”.
Shaan Taseer’s father, Salmaan, was shot dead by his own bodyguard for supporting Aasia Bibi (a Christian mother sentenced to death under these laws) and calling for reforms to the blasphemy laws.
A complaint of “hate speech” was registered against Shaan Taseer on 30 December (a crime punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment and/or a fine), but the Islamist group, Sunni Tehreek, are pushing for the police to charge him with defiling Muhammad’s name, a crime that carries a mandatory death penalty, threatening mass protests if the police fail to charge him. Shaan says he has received “credible death threats” from people who inspired his father’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri.