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Pakistan: 800 Christian families flee after blasphemy accusation

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Several Islamic clerics and a few Christian leaders held a press conference at a police station in Lahore, Pakistan, this evening (20 February) to send a message to at least 800 families to have fled a Christian neighbourhood in the city, after a 20-year-old Christian man was accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook, causing an angry mob to form.

The press conference was held at the Shahdara Police Station, after which a joint statement was signed calling for Christians to return and live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours, as before. The statement also noted that “the Christian community has guaranteed that they would not interfere in the religious matters of Muslims any further. And neither would any such incident [of disrespect] take place anymore. [Christians] will respect the religion of Muslims and holy places and their religious festivals and they [the leaders] will teach this to the members of their community”.

The mob had yesterday (19 February) set tyres alight and blocked part of the Grand Trunk Road, a main artery in Lahore that connects the city with other major parts of the country, demanding Patras Masih be publicly hanged for posting content alleged to have disrespected the prophet Muhammad.

Lahore is a big metropolitan with a population of more than 15 million, including the largest population of Christians in Pakistan – no less than half a million. Around 2,000 Christian families, including Masih’s, live in the Dhair neighbourhood of Shahdara, a northern suburb of Lahore, and Bishop Emmanuel Masih of God’s Church in Lahore told World Watch Monitor that at least 800 fled to stay with relatives elsewhere, fearing a repeat of several previous instances when Christian neighbourhoods have been set on fire following blasphemy accusations.

Masih’s paternal uncle, Arif, told World Watch Monitor his nephew was friends with both Christians and Muslims. “A few weeks ago, Patras posted a picture in a group of his friends that had both Christian and Muslim members,” he said.

According to the First Information Report (FIR) of the crime, lodged by a man named Muhammad Awais, the allegedly blasphemous content was posted more than a month ago, on 16 January, on a Facebook group named PaglonKiBasti (The Town of Lunatics).

“After seeing this post, I asked Muhammad Siddique [moderator of the group], who immediately phoned the suspect, Patras Masih, and asked him to remove the post. But Patras refused to remove the post, after which the area residents are quite upset and angry,” Awais stated in the FIR.

Requesting anonymity, a local pastor from the area said that several people with long beards had gathered and demanded that Patras Masih be handed over to them or else they would set their houses on fire, having brought petrol for this purpose.

In recent years, social media has become a thorny issue in Pakistan. YouTube remained blocked from September 2012 until January 2016, while in March last year Facebook was told it would be completely shut down if blasphemous content was not removed. Then in May, a 16-year-old Christian, Nabeel Masih*, was accused of posting a blasphemous picture on Facebook, and is now facing jail.

Punjab Assembly parliamentarian Mary Gill, who signed today’s agreement in Lahore on behalf of the Christian community, told World Watch Monitor the younger generation must understand the sensitivity of such issues while using social media. “Our people [Christians] are illiterate and there have been several such incidents in recent years,” she said. “Due to the sensitivity involved, even Christian politicians fear to handle such incidents for fear of reprisals.”

Pray for:

  • Christian in Pakistan who do not get the same amount of religious liberty that we in India get.
  • That it will no longer be easy for anyone to falsely accuse a Pakistani Christian of conversion due to the blasphemy laws of the country.

(With significant inputs from Matters India)

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