LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Hundreds of Christian families fled their homes in a village near Lahore, Pakistan yesterday after Muslim protestors called for the death of a young Christian accused of blasphemy, sources said.
Patras Masih, an 18-year-old resident of Dher village in Shahdara Town area of Lahore, was taken into police custody late Monday night (Feb. 19) after a day of protests led by the Muslim extremist Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) and other Islamist parties. The protestors threatened to burn down the homes of at least 700 poor Christian families, area residents said.
Several hundred protestors blocked a main highway, burned tires and chanted slogans calling for Masih’s death, they said. Telling police they would burn down Christians’ homes if Masih were not arrested, the protestors dispersed only after the local police chief assured them that the accused had been arrested and charged with blasphemy, sources said.
The accused’s father, Indreyas Masih, told Morning Star News by phone from an undisclosed location that he was at his job as a driver with the Water and Sanitation Agency when he heard about the protests.
“I was on duty when I received a phone call from my family that announcements are being made from mosque loudspeakers that my son Patras has committed blasphemy and should be punished for his crime,” he said. “I was shocked to hear this news and immediately asked my family members to leave the village.”
Indreyas Masih said he was unable to connect with other village Christians as most of them had turned off their phones and fled, fearing an attack by the protestors.
“We handed Patras to the police late on Monday after a provincial Christian lawmaker, Tariq Gill, told us that the protestors won’t back down until we surrender my son,” he said, adding that he has not seen his son since.
Patras Masih was accused of posting a blasphemous image on a group Facebook page from his phone on Jan. 16, but his father said his son’s cell phone has been in a repair shop since December.
His son told him that a friend had posted a sacrilegious photograph on a Facebook group from his ID a month ago, and that he had no intention of hurting religious sentiments, he said. Under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws, intent must be shown for conviction.
“My son is illiterate and works as sweeper at a private bank,” Masih said. “He has never been involved in any religious dispute with any Muslim in the village. I’m unable to understand why he has been trapped in this case.”
A member along with his family of Bethania Church, Masih said most of the Christian villagers had fled the area soon after the protests began. Police reported restoring calm by last night and urged residents to return home.
According to the First Information Report (FIR No. 174/18) registered by Shahdara Town Police on a complaint by Hafiz Muhammad Awais under Section 295-C of the blasphemy statutes, Patras Masih allegedly posted a sacrilegious photo on a Facebook group called Paaglon Ki Basti, which is administered by Muslims.
Awais alleged that he learned of the photo from a friend, Muhammad Siddique. Awais told police he and Siddique telephoned Patras Masih and asked him to remove the objectionable post but that he refused, prompting the complainant to reach out to Muslim leaders.
Aneeqa Maria, an attorney at The Voice Society, told Morning Star News that the group will provide legal assistance to the family.
“The complainant has alleged in the FIR that Patras had uploaded the sacrilegious photograph from his mobile phone, whereas his father claims that the accused’s cell phone broke down two months ago and is still at the repair shop,” she said.
Maria said police had wrongly charged Patras under the harshest part of the blasphemy law, Section 295-C, which prohibits only derogatory remarks – spoken or written, directly or indirectly – defaming Muhammad the prophet of Islam. It carries a mandatory death penalty.
“Although it’s too early to comment on the case, I believe the police jumped the gun due to the pressure exerted by the religious parties and charged Patras under Section 295-C to placate the mobs,” she said.
Maria added that delay of over one month in the registration of the FIR also points to the complainant’s mala fide, “which the police has ignored.”
Superintendent of Police City Division Ali Raza declined to tell Morning Star News why Masih had been charged under Section 295-C for derogatory comments about Muhammad.
“The boy’s family helped us in arresting him, as they believe he has committed a grave mistake,’” he claimed, also asserting that Patras Masih had admitted to blasphemy.
“We have deployed some 400 police personnel in Dher village to protect the local Christian community,” he said. “The situation was brought under control late on Monday night when we informed the protest leaders that the accused boy has been arrested and charged with blasphemy.”
He said police had not asked Christians to leave the village.
“They should return to their homes now as the situation is under control,” Raza said. “I can assure all residents that the police will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands.”
On Sept. 14, 2017 a Christian father of two in Pakistan was sentenced to death for blaspheming Islam’s prophet in a phone text even though he is illiterate.
Christian mother of five Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 after an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water. Although international attorneys note that lower courts did not consider which of three statements attributed to her were “blasphemous” nor prove the intent to blaspheme necessary for conviction, the courts upheld her conviction. She is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on an appeal.
Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support group Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Call to Return
Emmanuel Masih, a Christian resident of Dher village whose family is among the few who chose not to leave their homes, told Morning Star News that this was the first time local Christians had faced such a threat.
“Patras is an illiterate boy, and I’ve never seen him engage in any religious discussion with anyone,” he said, adding that the situation deteriorated after clerics began making announcements from mosque loudspeakers on Monday morning (Feb. 19) calling on all Muslims to gather at Shahdara Chowk to protest against the alleged sacrilege.
“A large number of Muslims from our village and nearby areas gathered on the main highway and blocked it by burning tires,” Emmanuel Masih said. “A majority of Christian families fled their homes amid reports that the protestors were planning to march towards our village and burn down our homes. There are reports that the protestors also threw bricks and stones at some Christian houses in the village, but the situation was brought under control as a large police contingent was deployed in the village to prevent further violence.”
Dilawar Bhatti, another village resident, said today that his family had left their home on Monday afternoon (Feb. 19).
“I’ve come today to see if the situation is safe for my family’s return,” he said. “I think we will stay a couple of days with our relatives until the police are able to fully restore law and order in the area.”
Announcements were reportedly made from village mosques today calling on Christians to return to their homes, as the “blasphemer” had been arrested, and they need not fear reprisals from Muslims.
Emmanuel Masih confirmed this information, telling Morning Star News that Muslim neighbors had assured them that no Christian would be hurt, because “they could not be blamed for the wrong done by an individual.”
“I just hope that the issue settles soon, so that all Christians can return to their homes,” he said.Take Action