ASIA/PAKISTAN - A Christian woman and a Muslim man arrested for alleged blasphemy

Tuesday, 2 May 2023 human rights   blasphemy   religious minorities  

Lahore (Agenzia Fides) - Musarat Bibi, an illiterate Christian woman, employed at the "Girls Higher Secondary School" in the city of Arif-Wala, in the Pakistani province of Punjab, was arrested together with a Muslim man, also an employee in the school, with the accusation of having desecrated the Koran. The two were cleaning out the school warehouse cupboards, burning rubbish, old files, unusable papers taken from the warehouse cupboards.
Sarmand recognized among the burned papers some pages of the Koran, in Arabic, and warned the school authorities. When news spread that pages of the Koran had been burned, some students and teachers began to protest. Thanks to a call from a man who identified himself as Kashif Nadeem, the police were alerted and rushed to the scene to investigate. The school administration recounted the incident, thanked the two workers for doing their best to remove the identified pages, and called the incident "completely unintentional". The police, however, arrested Musarat Bibi and Mohammad Sarmand for blasphemy, under article 295-b of the penal code, which punishes contempt of the Koran.
The woman, a widow, has three daughters, two of whom are married while the youngest is 14 years old. The youngest was brought to safety by other family members. Musarat worked at the school after the death of her husband, who was a teacher. Christians living in the Arif-Wala area now fear for the safety of Musarat and the other few Christian families living there, as in the past people simply accused of blasphemy were lynched by mobs of religious fanatics.
According to Javed Sohatara, a lawyer assisting the family, the accuser, Kashif Nadeem, brought charges of blasphemy against the Christian widow, because he is steeped in "extremist religious ideology" and harbors personal hatred personal against the Christian widow.
According to the lawyer, Kashif Nadeem - harbors a grudge against the Christian employee because the school administration gave her the task of managing the school canteen which was previously managed by a relative of Kashif, who lost the contract. "In Pakistan, the accusation of blasphemy is a life-threatening accusation. With this accusation, the man wanted to permanently remove Musarat Bibi from the school canteen and and from work, and he succeeded", he added.
According to Fides sources, the school administration and the civil leaders of the city are well aware of the reality and support the Christian woman and the Muslim man unjustly accused. "Community support is an important factor for the victim's family: this could hopefully lead to a successful outcome of the case", notes the lawyer.
Commenting on the incident, Joseph Jansen, head of the NGO "Voice for Justice" in Pakistan, points out that "human rights violations in Pakistan are increasing on a large scale and that, in many cases, the laws on blasphemy serve as a pretext". It notes in particular that "violence is committed against women belonging to minority religious communities, namely Hindu and Christian women, and this violence remains unpunished". "Due to the increase in false accusations, immense fear has taken hold in the community in the Arif-Wala region, especially among Christian women workers. Women are discouraged from looking for work and this increases financial hardships in their families, increases poverty and vulnerability, and further lowers their social status", he explains.
Mr. Jansen continues: "In blasphemy cases, complainants and witnesses who have made false accusations, when proven, do not suffer the consequences and are not prosecuted for perjury. This provision, if it is implemented, could help change the climate of impunity and hold those involved accountable for accusations made to harm others. An action plan to end the misuse of this law, used against most vulnerable, has been urgently needed for many years. In several cases, fanatical individuals have used this law to take justice into their own hands and lynch the accused," he recalls.
Zara Amoon Gill, spokesperson for "Minorities Rights Watch Pakistan", underlines another element: "High-ranking police officers, not mere agents, should record complaints and accusations of blasphemy", agreeing of the need to "prosecute false witnesses". And he notes, "we urge the government to ensure the safety of the accused until the verdict of the court in order to protect them from extremist violence". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 2/5/2023)