Three young Christians in northeastern Pakistan have been charged with blasphemy after area Muslims alleged that pages of the Quran had been burned near some Christian homes to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims, according to a report.
Police charged the three Christians, identified as Azeem Mehmood, Abbas Gulshan, and Irfan Saleem, from a village named Kotli Muhammad Sadique in Punjab Province’s Narowal district, on Dec. 30, the U.K.-based group Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, known as CLAAS, learned recently.
A court sent Mehmood, who is a member of the Pakistani Army, to judicial custody while it granted bail to the other two Christians, CLAAS said in a statement, adding that while Mehmood was arrested on Dec. 25, Gulshan and Saleem were arrested on Dec. 29.
After the Christmas service, when the congregation of United Presbyterian Church was holding a procession around the church, a large number of policemen arrived. An officer said they had received a complaint that some people had burned pages of the Quran and they were there to investigate the matter.
Some local Muslims who were standing near the church took the police to an ash pile near the homes of Christians. There are about 40 Christian houses near the church.
Shahzad Masih, an uncle of Gulshan and Saleem, was quoted as saying that some local Muslims found the burned pieces of a blue letterbox, which had purportedly been installed on the wall to collect pages containing Quranic verses, near the Christians' homes.
A local Christian, identified as Ilyas Masih, allegedly told police that he had seen some young men around the fire but he wasn’t able to see their faces due to thick fog. After Friday prayers at a mosque the same day, a large angry mob of Muslims from surrounding villages gathered in the village, demanding the immediate arrest of all Christians.
Local Christians believe that police tortured Ilyas Masih to force him to admit to seeing the faces of all three Christians so that the arrests could be made to placate area Muslims.
Mehmood’s wife, Marriam, was quoted as saying that her husband never left the house on Dec. 24 or Dec. 25.
Mehmood’s brother, Griffin, said that Mehmood had a dispute with Ilyas Masih before he was accused of blasphemy.
“It is very sad that blasphemy continues to be used as an easy tool to settle personal scores and grudges against Christians and other religious minorities,” Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, said in the statement. “Unfortunately, Pakistani society has become more intolerant than ever before.”
Christians are often targeted both by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws meant to protect Islamic sensitivities and by hardliners who carry out violence and have killed scores of believers in the past several years.
The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, is frequently misused for personal revenge. It carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.
Pakistan is ranked as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.
At the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Pakistani rights activist Shaan Taseer said that there are as many as 200 people jailed in Pakistan on blasphemy charges.