After serving five years in prison, a Christian who owns a bicycle repair shop in Lahore, Pakistan, has been sentenced to death on baseless charges of blasphemy, according to his lawyer.
Attorney Riaz Anjum told Morning Star News in 2017 Muhammad Irfan had asked Ashfaq Masih not to charge him for a bicycle repair because he was a devotee of Muslim Sufis and saints.
“Masih rejected his request, saying he only followed Jesus and wasn’t interested in Irfan’s religious statutes as a Muslim,” Anjum told the outlet.
Local police later arrested Masih, 36, a Pentecostal Christian living in Lahore’s Green Town area, charging him with disrespecting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, by allegedly saying that Christ was the only “true prophet,” according to Morning Star News.
During his court appearance, Masih testified he was framed on false charges by the complainant in the case, Muhammad Ashfaq, the landlord of his shop, and Muhammad Naveed, who runs a nearby bicycle and motorbike repair shop. Masih told the court that Naveed was jealous of his success, and had tried twice before to pick a fight with him over clients and nurtured a grudge, his lawyer said.
“Muhammad Ashfaq had been pressuring Masih to vacate the shop, ignoring the latter’s pleas to not displace his running business,” Anjum told Morning Star. “Masih believes both Ashfaq and Naveed conspired to implicate him in a blasphemy case by using Irfan.”
Masih’s lawyer told the outlet he pointed out to Additional Sessions Judge Khalid Wazir that First Information Report (FIR) filed by police officers did not indicate his client had committed blasphemy. The blasphemy claim was made by Ashfaq when he gave his statement to police.
Ashfaq and some other Muslims went to Masih’s shop and claim they saw him insulting Islam’s prophet, yet “nowhere in the recorded testimony or FIR is there a mention of the alleged blasphemous words,” according to Anjum.
The lawyer also said Irfan did not show up at the trial to testify. The prosecutor “gave up” the primary witness who was the most relevant to the case, and presented only two out of the total five witnesses during the trial, and even their statements were contradictory, he said.
Even though there was no solid evidence against his client, Judge Wazir rejected Anjum’s argument to give Masih the benefit of the doubt. Wazir handed down a death sentence to Masih on July 4.
Masih’s brother Mehmood told Morning Star News the family has hired former Pakistan Bar Council Vice Chairman Abid Saqi to appeal the conviction to the Lahore High Court.
Sajid Christopher of the Human Friends Organization told the outlet his organization would pay all of the legal costs for Masih’s appeal.
“I’m extremely disappointed by Masih’s conviction,” Christopher said. “We have assured the family that we will support them in courts and all other forums till the release of their loved one.”
As CBN News has reported over the last several years, under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting Islam or its prophet can be sentenced to death. Although no one has ever been officially executed for it, dozens of people have been killed by mobs for just being accused of the crime.
False accusations of blasphemy are common in the Islamic country and are often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Christians and other religious minorities are prime targets for abuse under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
In a recent editorial posted by Barnabas Aid, the ministry commented on the case, writing: “This latest case is particularly troubling, as Ashfaq Masih made no reference to Muhammad or to the Islamic religion. Ashfaq’s alleged crime was to say that he believes Jesus Christ to be the only true prophet.”
Barnabas Aid also suggested how Pakistan might amend its blasphemy laws.
“One suggestion for the modification of the ‘blasphemy’ laws is the adoption of the sharia (Islamic law) principle of qazaf. Used in relation to accusations of adultery (zina), the qazaf principle is that false accusations should be punished almost as severely as the crime itself,” the ministry wrote.
“Adoption of this principle in relation to ‘blasphemy’ would mean that false accusations could result in fines or imprisonment. If taken seriously, this principle could work to reduce the number of malicious accusations made against Christians and others,” Barnabas Aid said.
In their 2022 annual report, the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom recommended Pakistan continue to be designated by the U.S. State Department in a list of 15 countries as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations.”
Pakistan was designated a CPC by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Nov. 15. 2021.
The country is listed eighth on Open Doors USA’s 2022 World Watch List of the most dangerous places to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Pakistan ranks second behind Nigeria for the number of Christians killed for their faith. During the period from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, 620 people were murdered for their beliefs.
The Open Doors report notes, “All Christians in Pakistan are potential victims of abuse and discrimination, but anyone caught converting from Islam bears the brunt of the persecution in Pakistan. Even established churches come under pressure and surveillance from the government.”
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