A Pakistani Christian man has been sentenced to death by hanging after being accused of blasphemy in 2017.
Ashfaq Masih, 34, was sentenced Monday by the Pakistani Session Court, according to the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an interdenominational organization working on behalf of persecuted Christians in Pakistan.
According to documents cited by CLAAS, Masih said he is innocent of what he called "quite baseless, false and frivolous" charges.
Masih, who owns a bike mechanic shop in Lahore, was quoted as saying the charges stem from an incident in June 2017 when a customer refused to pay him for a job.
In a not-guilty plea obtained by Chruch in Chains, Masih said the man "refused to give me money and said, 'I am a follower of Peer Fakhir [a Muslim ascetic] and don't ask for money from me.' I told him that I am a believer in Jesus Christ and I don't believe in Peer Fakhir and please give me my labour."
That man went and told Masih's rival bike shop owner, who accused Masih of blasphemy and filed a police report.
"Muhammad Naveed who is also a motorcycle mechanic and had started a shop in front of me and was jealous because my business was doing well and had a good reputation in the area," Masih said in the statement. "We had already fought a few days before the incident. And he had threatened me with dire consequences."
Under Section 295-C of Pakistan's penal code, defiling the name of Islam's prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death penalty.
Masih denied he had broken any laws.
"I neither uttered any derogatory word against Prophet Muhammad nor can think about it. I respect Prophet Muhammad by heart and soul," he was quoted as saying.
Ashfaq's older brother, Mehmood, told CLAAS there was no proceeding on Monday but that a session judge just handed him a copy of the judgment.
"The sudden judgment stunned me and I didn't know what to do," Mehmood said in a statement shared through CLAAS.
"I hardly gathered myself and came out of the courtroom and started crying as it was the end of the world for me. I rushed home and informed my family. My wife and children also started crying. As the news spread my relatives started visiting to console us, but it was not easy for me as Ashfaq is my only brother and I love him very much. I can do anything for him."
Following the sentencing, the judge told Masih that he could appeal his conviction. He was sent back to jail in Lahore, according to CLAAS.
CLAAS Director Nasir Saeed said it is the second instance within 30 days where a Christian has been sentenced to death. The court upheld the death penalty of two Christian brothers, Amoon and Qaiser Ayub, on June 11.
The two brothers were charged with posting blasphemous content on a blog that they say they never created. They were accused of blasphemy after Ayub got into an argument with his friends at work in 2011.
Saeed said in Masih's case, while the judgment was unfortunate, it was not entirely unexpected.
"I don't remember any case where the lower court decided to grant bail or freed anyone accused of the blasphemy law," he said in a statement. "The judges [are] aware that such cases are made to punish and settle personal grudges with the opponents, especially against the Christians."
Several international groups have voiced their concern over the ongoing misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which Saeed said leads him to believe "the British government and other participants will take this matter seriously and express their concern to the Pakistani government."
Pakistan's blasphemy laws have drawn global scrutiny in recent years. The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death and served over 10 years in prison before Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted her in 2018, drew international attention.
A report from the International Institute for Religious Freedom found that "1,865 people have been charged under the blasphemy laws [from 1987 to August 2021], with a significant spike in 2020, when 200 cases were registered."
"Punjab, the province where most Christians of Pakistan live, is leading with 76% cases and 337 people in prison for blasphemy. The largest number of inmates is in the Lahore District Jail (60)," the report reads. "Also, at least 128 people have been killed by mobs, outside any judiciary process, after being signalled as having committed blasphemy or apostasy, without any chance to have access to an investigation, and nobody has been arrested for their murder."
Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan, a Muslim majority country, as the eighth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution. The U.S. State Department has named Pakistan on its list of "countries of particular concern" that tolerate or engage in egregious violations of religious freedom.