Pakistani court acquits Christian imprisoned for blasphemy

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A court in Pakistan acquitted a Christian who was serving a life sentence in prison under that nation’s blasphemy laws.

International Christian Concern, a human rights watchdog organization that focuses particularly on religious persecution, reported the Lahore High Court on Dec. 15 acquitted Imran Ghafur Masih after spending more than a decade in prison for allegedly burning the Quran.

Masih’s acquittal came as a surprise to his family, who moved into hiding after the court’s decision was announced to avoid retribution by Islamist extremists.

“It is a day of resurrection for us,” his brother Naveed Masih told International Christian Concern. “God has heard our cry, and we are very thankful to him. It’s a Christmas gift for us.”

The incident that prompted Masih’s imprisonment occurred in July 2009. He was cleaning out his family’s bookstore and burning trash, including some old books and papers, when he discovered a textbook with Arabic writing.

Masih asserted he asked his Muslim neighbor, Hajii Liaquat Ali, if the book contained religious writings and received assurance it was fine to burn it with the trash. However, Ali later recovered the partially burned book and used it as evidence to accuse Masih of burning a Quran. Masih’s family alleged Ali wanted the storefront leased to the family’s bookstore to expand his own business next door.

Ali reportedly repeated his accusations throughout the local Muslim community, and mosques announced over their public address systems that a Christian had burned the Quran. A mob of 400 people gathered at Masih’s home, beat him and other members of his family, and then doused them with paraffin in an attempt to burn them alive, according to a report on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom website.

After local law enforcement intervened and took Masih into custody, about 1,000 people gathered outside the police station, demanding that he be handed to them. Police registered a blasphemy charge against Masih and distributed copies of the charge among the assembled crowd. The Session Court of Faisalabad on Jan. 11, 2010, sentenced Masih to life in prison.

Blasphemy laws violate ‘a fundamental human right’

Masih’s acquittal occurred eight days after the U.S. House of Representatives voted 386-3 to pass a bipartisan resolution calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws.

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Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, identified the Masih case as an example of “blasphemy laws being used to settle personal scores.”

“While the Lahore High Court has finally corrected this 11-year travesty of justice, we should keep in mind that this is not just something that affects our Christian brothers and sisters in foreign countries. Muslims in Pakistan are charged with blasphemy in higher numbers than all other religious groups combined,” Hawks said.

“Blasphemy laws strike at a fundamental human right—the ability for each person to decide whether to be religious and, if so, what that religion will be,” she continued. “No government should have the ability to dictate the nature of religious belief.

“Increased attention on the injustice of blasphemy laws over the past decade have led many countries to repeal their laws. Pakistan should follow suit and live up to its international obligations to protect the religious freedom for all those living within its borders.”

Two years ago, Hawks participated in a U.S. Senate briefing opposing blasphemy laws.

She expressed hope the Senate will join the House in passing a resolution urging global repeal of blasphemy laws so “the U.S. Congress will be speaking in one voice to unequivocally reaffirm America’s commitment to religious freedom for all people.”

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