Blasphemy in Pakistan

Article excerpt

A 14-YEAR-OLD Christian boy and his uncle who had been sentenced to die for insulting Islam were spared February 23 when a judge in northeast Pakistan ruled that there was no evidence against them. Militant Muslims immediately rallied against the decision. Extremists outside the court in Lahore vowed to retaliate, threatening the lives of the defendants, judges and lawyers in the case, which has drawn international attention to the laws against blasphemy in Pakistan.

On February 9 a court in Lahore sentenced Salamat Masih, 14, and his uncle, Rehmat Masih, 40, to death for allegedly scribbling graffiti defaming the prophet Muhammad on the wall of a mosque in Kot Ladha in the province of Punjab. It is not clear what the alleged graffiti said; the mosque's prayer leader reportedly scrubbed it off the wall and would not repeat the words in court. The two defendants also reportedly scattered leaflets that defamed Islam. No physical, evidence was offered by the prosecution, and the accused denied all charges.

The case was appealed--an action that stirred outrage among radical Muslims who went on a rampage February 16 while demonstrating outside the courthouse where the appeal was being heard. "They smashed my car. I escaped with my life," defense attorney Asma Jehangir told the Associated Press.

The original incident began to unfold May 11, 1993, when a prayer leader of the mosque filed a complaint against Salamat Masih, Rehmat Masih and Manzoor Masih, Rehmat Masih's son. All three Masihs belong to the country's minuscule Christian population. Sunni Muslims make up more than 95 percent of Pakistan's 128 million people, while the Christian population is estimated at 1.7 percent to 3 percent.

The human rights organization Amnesty International reported that "prior to the alleged graffiti incident ... Salamat Masih bad argued with a neighborhood boy over pet pigeons. The boy then told village elders that he had seen Salamat Masih write on the mosque wall. There appears to have been a history of petty clashes and hostility between Christians and their Muslim neighbors."

Salamat Masih, 12 years old at the time of the incident, told the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that he was beaten severely to force him to implicate his uncle and cousin.

The three Christians were arrested on the day the alleged incident occurred. On April 5, 1994, when the blasphemy trial was in progress, Manzoor Masih was murdered near the Lahore High Court building when three gunmen on motorcycles opened fire, according to Amnesty International. Injured were Salamat and Rehmat Masih and John Joseph, a Christian human rights activist escorting the Masihs. …