The alleged suicide of a young Pakistani Christian man who was being held in jail sparked protests Wednesday as dozens of mourners clashed with police at his funeral.
Less than a day after Fanish Masih was found dead in his cell in Sialkot, a town in Punjab province, some 700 people gathered for the 19-year-old’s funeral on Wednesday.
A photographer with The Associated Press said he witnessed dozens of younger attendants tossing stones at police, who responded by beating protestors with batons and firing tear gas at mourners during the funeral procession.
According to reports, many in the community are suspicious of Masih’s death.
“The authorities said he committed suicide, but we believe he was killed by Muslim police officials,” one relative of the Christian youth was quoted as saying by Pakistan Christian Post.
Though authorities say Masih hung himself in jail using his own belt, International Christian Concern and other sources reported that detained teen’s face, arms and the rest of his body were covered with severe wounds.
“We are extremely saddened to learn of the killing of Falish in police custody,” said ICC’s Jonathan Racho in a statement Tuesday. “The killing exposes the complete lack of protection for Christians in Pakistan. We call upon the international community to pressure the government of Pakistan for protection of Christian minorities.”
Masih had been accused of desecrating the Quran and was arrested on Sept. 12. The allegation had prompted Muslims from a nearby village to destroy a church and two Christian homes the day before the young man was arrested.
While officials insist that Masih committed suicide, the Catholic advocacy group National Commission for Justice and Peace has called the death “extrajudicial murder” and has demanded an investigation.
Christian lawmaker Nelson Azeem told AP regardless of how the teen died, “it was the responsibility of the jail staff to protect his life as he was facing a serious charge.”
After news of Masih’s death spread, minorities and human rights activists on Tuesday organized a protest in Lahore. Some demonstrators held posters calling the teen’s death a murder.
Masih’s death follows those of eight Christians who were burned to death last month by a Muslim mob in another blasphemy-related incident.
On Aug. 1, a mob of more than 2,000 Muslims burned the homes of Christians in Gojra city in Punjab province. In one case, mobs reportedly locked a family of five inside a burning house and stood outside and watched as they died. Inside the home was two children – one aged six and the other 13 – their parents and 75-year-old grandfather, according to Agence France-Presse.
In recent months, Muslim extremists have gained greater control in Pakistan and have incited Muslim mobs to attack Christians for alleged blasphemy.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have often been abused by Muslims who use them as tools of revenge on Christians for land disputes and arguments. No evidence is needed to accuse someone of blasphemy and have the person arrested.
“The blasphemy law always encouraged hostility towards Christians and has been interpreted by some Muslim fanatics as license to take the law into their own hands,” noted Nazir S. Bhatti, president of Pakistan Christian Congress, at a press conference last month in Washington, D.C.
Currently, Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan’s population. Muslims, meanwhile, make up approximately 95 percent – divided between Sunni Muslims (75 percent) and Shia Muslims (20 percent).