Saturday, January 28th, a Pakistani anti-terrorism court fully acquitted more than 100 individuals accused of ravaging a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, then burning more than 100 houses belonging to those of Christian faith. The ruling comes nearly 4 years after the March 2013 incident occurred in Lahore’s Joseph Colony. Judge Chaudry Muhammad Azam rendered the blanket acquittal because “there was not enough evidence to prove a crime”. Christians worry that ulterior motives may be behind the ruling.
Religious Argument Sparks Riot
Police reports indicate that a quarrel between two men, one a Christian and the other a Muslim, ignited the rioting. Sawan Masih is a Christian who worked as a local street sweeper. According to reports, he was having a conversation over religion with his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran.
Some declare the discussion escalated into a heated argument and the next day Imran is said to have accused Masih of blasphemy against his Islamic beliefs. In Pakistan, blasphemy against the Islamic Prophet Muhammad is a crime that receives the death penalty if the accused is found guilty.
Apparently, the accusations of blasphemy were made publicly over a loudspeaker at a local mosque. Estimates say that close to 2,000 Muslim men then went to the Joseph Colony community where Masih resided and burned over 100 homes. Defense attorney Ghulman Murtaza Chaudry said that the witnesses for the state could not identify one of the suspects accused of the crime, so all were released.
Christian Convicted of Blasphemy
All Muslims accused of burning the community were released until their acquittal. However, the Christian accused of blasphemy was held in jail the entire time. In March 2014, Masih was convicted of blasphemy against the Muslim faith and sentenced to death. He was also fined 200,000 rupees (roughly $2,000) and has appealed to the High Court in Lahore.
Christians in Fear
Following the incident, Chief Minster of the Punjab, Mian Shahbaz Sharif stated that all Pakistani Christians had equal rights and deserved protection under Pakistani law. Christians are still very fearful following this disturbing verdict, though.
It’s common for Muslim Pakistanis to allege similar types of crimes against their Christian neighbors to settle land disputes. Sometimes there is little proof of the accusations other than a collective plea from multiple Muslims who say they overheard the conversation.
Even though government officials from Punjab promised to rebuild the community and pledge land rights to those affected, many of the residents are very skeptical. They fear that there is no justice for their minority religion in Pakistan.
Encourage Extremist Violence
In spite of video footage, signed documents, and photographs of literally thousands of angry people ravaging a Christian community, not a single person was found guilty. Cecil Shane Chaudhry, the executive director of the Catholic bishops’ justice and peace commission, felt like this would send a disturbing message to other extremist groups that they could easily get away with violence.
Samson Salamat, the acting chair of the Rawadari Tehreek group, feels this is simply a repeat of previous attacks by anti-Christians. He pleaded that none have been apprehended in the past, and this acquittal sends a terrible message to the world about Pakistan’s treatment of minority religious beliefs.
With sufficient evidence to presumably bring at least a small percentage of the 112 charged to justice, the acquittal casts a dark cloud over religious freedom in Pakistan. Unlike some parts of the world, the Christian faith is the minority in Pakistan. Christians have been persecuted by Pakistani Muslims for years, but a recent plea from religious leaders has helped reduce the intensity of the violence. This acquittal sends a disturbing message to all Christians living in areas where the Muslim faith represents the majority.
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