A Christian from Pakistan's Punjab province has been accused of blasphemy after allegedly watching anti-Islamic lectures on his mobile phone. Local Muslims are calling for the man to be killed. The incident has also affected the wider Christian population of Chak 44, a village in Mandi Bahauddin District in the Punjab province. Many have been forced to flee for fear of attack and Muslims are refusing to buy goods from them or sell goods to them, leaving them in desperate need of food.
Events began to unfold on Monday 19 April when Imran Masih, caretaker at a local healthcare centre, handed his phone to his Muslim colleagues who wanted to watch the video clip of a wedding he attended the previous weekend. He later returned to find his phone in the hands of a Muslim store owner who was relaying to onlookers anti-Islamic videos on YouTube.
Despite Imran protesting his innocence, the store owner and his colleagues beat him up, before leaving him locked in an empty room. Imran was released after contacting his church using another phone he had. Two days later, Imran discovered that the store owner had consulted with Muslim scholars over the incident, who then issued a fatwa (authoritative decree) claiming that Imran had committed blasphemy which carries the death penalty under sharia law and Pakistan's Penal Code.
Imran subsequently fled and news of the incident began to spread throughout the local community. A reward was offered by a local Muslim businessman to anyone who would kill Imran, and a local committee began arranging an attack on Christian houses and churches, despite colleagues and friends testifying to Imran’s innocence.
Muslims were also urged not to trade with Christians. Normally the Christians would work in the fields and houses of local Muslims, but this has been stopped. They have also been banned from buying items from shops in the village. “They have boycotted us,” local Christians said, “and left us in a desperate situation.”
On 6 May, after Friday prayers, a Muslim cleric exhorted local Muslims to gather in front of a mosque in Chak 44 village. Police were contacted who took control of the situation and prevented an attack on the Christian community. Statements were taken from Muslims, but none from Christians. One Christian man, formerly a Muslim, was attacked. Police dragged him away and detained him. He was released the following day.
Three-quarters of the Christians in the village – who comprise around 1% of its total population – have now fled their homes for fear of attack and in order to access food. The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which Barnabas Aid supports, is assisting Christians remaining in the village. CLAAS have requested that police patrol the village until the tension eases and life returns to normal.
Meanwhile, Imran continues to be sought for blasphemy. Local Christians report, “We went to offer apologies to the Muslim villagers, but they put forth conditions for peace. They are demanding that the blasphemy accused Imran Masih should be handed over to them so they can burn him alive in front of the local church.” Christians remaining in the village have been told they will only be forgiven if they leave the village or convert to Islam.
An amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code in the 1980s, often called the “Blasphemy Law”, resulted in the desecration of the Quran becoming a crime carrying a punishment of life imprisonment, whilst the defiling of Muhammad's name became a crime carrying a punishment of death or imprisonment. The latter was changed in 1990, making the crime punishable by death only. This was after the Federal Shariat Court ruled that the life imprisonment option was "repugnant to the injunctions of Islam".
Non-Muslims are especially vulnerable to accusation under the blasphemy law because cases often come down to one person’s word against another, and Muslim judges tend to give greater weight to the word of the Muslim accuser. This corresponds with what sharia says about the value of a Muslim’s testimony being twice that of a non-Muslim’s.