Lahore, Pakistan – A year after Muslims devastated the predominantly Christian Joseph Colony; the man at the center of the controversy has been sentenced to death for blasphemy because of claims that he insulted Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

Sawan Masih’s sentence, handed down March 27, is based on a conversation that occurred between him and his Muslim friend in March 2013. Two days after the conversation, Masih’s residence in Joseph Colony was pillaged by more than 3,000 angry Muslims, who looted and torched Christian homes, shops and churches displacing hundreds of families.

Islamist attacking Joseph Colony in March 2013.
Islamist attacking Joseph Colony in March 2013. (Abid Nawaz)

Masih’s trial was conducted in the Lahore Camp Jail, a place he’s been unable to leave due to severe danger to his life. Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza sentenced Masih to death and fined him 200,000 Pakistani Rupee, or roughly US $2,000.

Pakistan has never carried out an execution for blasphemy, which it defines as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God.” The ruling was issued on the same day the US released a report naming Pakistan as the leading country for imprisoning people for blasphemy.

“There are no procedural safeguards, making the law ripe for abuse,” said the report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body to Congress. “[I]ndividuals accused of blasphemy have been murdered in vigilante violence. Mere allegations often serve as an accelerant in combustible situations, resulting in mob attacks or violence that undermines Pakistan’s stability and empowers extremists. Despite the law’s rampant abuse and lack of procedural safeguards, Pakistan’s Federal Sharia Court recently ruled that the death penalty should be the sole penalty for blasphemy,” the report said.

Masih’s attorney, Naeem Shakir, told World Watch Monitor an appeal is being filed to the Lahore High Court, which must sign off on death penalty cases. He said the conviction was not based on justice especially since the state has failed to prosecute those accused of destroying Joseph Colony.

“Those charged with terrorism, mob violence and blasphemy are released on bail, but Masih has been convicted and awarded the death penalty despite the lack of proper evidence,” Shakir said. According to the New York Times, Masih released a statement insisting “that he had been falsely charged as part of a plot by businessmen to use blasphemy allegations to drive Christians from the land in Joseph Colony so that it could be seized for industrial use. They hatched a conspiracy to push out the residents of the colony. They contrived a case and got it filed by a person who was close to me. I am innocent.”

World Watch Monitor has been unable to verify the statement’s origin.

A key part of the evidence provided by Muslim witnesses and the complainant said Masih told his Muslim friend, “My Jesus is genuine. He is Son of Allah (Allah forbid). He will return while your Prophet is false. My Jesus is true and will give salvation.

However, this claim against Masih, stating that he called Jesus the ‘Son of Allah,’ on the night he allegedly blasphemed against Islam has raised questions, as the vast majority of Christians do not use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God.

The Joseph Colony, surrounded by steel mills, has been inhabited by Christian residents for 40 years. The residents settled the area after being evicted from another location and have never owned it as most of the people are poor and able to find only menial labor given their minority Christian status.

On the morning of the Joseph Colony attack, Muslim groups from the nearby factories Workers’ Union went on strike for Masih’s arrest. The police assured the Christians in the colony that an attack would be averted if Masih was turned into their station, so he was handed over. The following day, however, a mob attacked the colony, sending hundreds of Christians fleeing their homes.

After the incident, police registered a case of mob violence, terrorism and of blasphemy against more than 1,000 people, whom the state has yet to prosecute. All have been released on bail.

Witnesses said the mob was led by political leaders Malik Riaz, Asad Ashraf, Ghazali Butt and Saleem Mughal of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which once governed the region and now is the country’s largest political force after winning national elections in May 2013, but none of them were arrested.