Parveen Bibi, sister of the murdered husband, holds the dead couple’s baby – one of four children orphaned by the killing
4 Nov Punjab, PakistanAsif Aqeel
A Pakistani mob beat to near-death a Christian and his pregnant wife for her alleged ‘blasphemy’, then threw them both into the large kiln where they both worked as bonded laborers.
The incident happened on Tuesday 4th Nov, some 60 kilometers from Lahore, the capital of Punjab in central Pakistan – in Chak 59 village, Kot Radha Kishan.
The couple originally belonged to the historic Christian village Clarkabad, only 4 kilometers from Chak 59. Several incidents of communal violence have taken place between Christians of Clarkabad and Muslims of surrounding villages in the recent past.
Human bones recovered from the kiln
4 Nov Punjab, PakistanPhoto: Khalid Shehzad
Their lives could have been saved if they’d fled after her alleged ‘burning of the Qur’an’, but the brick-making kiln owner refused to let them leave without re-paying their bonded loan. This is a traditional method still used to enslave laborers across India and Pakistan, although officially illegal in Pakistan. The practice is recognized by the UN as a form of ‘modern slavery.’ (See below)
Two days before their murder, Shahzad Masih (26) and his five months-pregnant wife Shama Bibi (24) were accused of burning the pages of a Qur’an.
The couple already had four children – Solomon (8), Zeeshan (5) given to an uncle for adoption as they could not keep him at the time, Sonia (4) and Poonam (18mths).
Parveen Bibi, wife of Masih’s eldest brother, talked to World Watch Monitor at the scene the same day the joint murder happened. She told us that his late father Nazar Masih “used to do black magic” in which he used amulets and other documents that she said might have contained Qur’anic verses.
“On Sunday, Shama burned them all and threw the ashes on a garbage heap outside their quarters. Shama never meant any disrespect to Islam as she was totally illiterate and had no idea what the amulets contained,” she said. “A few people recognized partially burned pages in the ash and raised a cry that Shama had burned the Qur’an.”
Shahzad Masih and his five brothers worked for many years at the brick kiln, owned by Yousuf Gujjar. Parveen said Shahzad and his brothers went to Gujjar to resolve the matter after the situation got tense in the village. “Gujjar on the one hand assured us that nothing would happen, and on the other hand asked his accountant not to let Shahzad and Shama flee the village without paying back their bond money”, (taken from them as an ‘advance’ against their employment and wages).
By Monday night, some Muslim neighbors had informed the police of the alleged desecration and warned of a possible attack on the Christian couple, Parveen said. “That night I had Shahzad and Shama sleep in my home so that if the police arrested them, at least we would know.”
At about 6 a.m. when Shahzad and Shama went back to their own home in order to prepare for work, an angry mob began pouring into their quarters. Sensing the danger all the Christians fled except Shama’s sister Yasmeen (married to Shahzad’s brother Fiaz Masih).
Yasmeen Bibi and Mukhtar Masih, sister and father of murdered Shama Masih
4 Nov Punjab, PakistanPhoto: Asif Aqeel
Yasmeen said they were still preparing breakfast when a few more people knocked at their door and enquired about Shama. “They entered the house and one of the men dragged Shama out. Shama had their youngest daughter Poonam in her arms. That man snatched Poonam and threw her on the floor…So brick kiln guard Muhammad Akram rescued Shama and took her to the kiln office (only a few yards away from their house) and locked her in there, to save her from the attackers.”
“Shama was crying and screaming for help. The guard went for her husband and asked him to join Shama in the room to console her, as the guard assured them that soon they would be taken out – after the protestors dispersed.
“By then, the number of mobsters was very small, but we could hear announcements being made from mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages – that a Christian woman had desecrated the Qur’an”.
Yasmeen said people from five surrounding villages – Chak 60, Rosey, Pailan, Nawan Pindi and Hatnian – were gathered together by the residents of Chak 59 and their brick kiln coworkers.
“Soon thousands of men armed with clubs, hatchets and axes loaded onto tractors and trolleys began pouring in.
(The guard) Akram had locked the main kiln office door from the outside, but the angry protestors broke in anyway. But they failed to break the iron door of the office inside, and Shama and Shahzad must have locked it from inside.”
The angry protestors then climbed on to the roof, and broke it in, “as if it was made of wood, straw and mud” said Yasmeen.
She says these men then opened the door from inside and brought the couple into the open, where the highly-charged protestors were ready to attack.
“They beat them with wooden clubs on their heads, and hatchets, before they were both tied to a tractor and pulled out onto a road which was under construction, covered with crushed stones.”
“I think they were unconscious, but still breathing, but the mob was still not willing to leave them alone,” said Yasmeen. “They took some petrol from a tractor and doused their bodies and threw them in the kiln. Then I lost hope and fled with my children from there.”
Another relative, Parvaiz Shehzad, who also lives in Clarkabad, said that Muslims of neighboring villages “were very much jealous of Christians”. The village is named after Robert Clark (1825-1900), the first Anglican missionary to Pakistan. Parvaiz Shehzad said it was the first village in the district that had electricity, a bank, a post office and a high school.
“Most educated people of surrounding villages had studied in in Clarkabad…Strife between the Christian villagers and Muslim villagers has been a common feature in recent years”.
As Shehzad and Shama were of Clarkabad, he claims jealousy came into play.
The dead woman’s sister Yasmeen says that during the entire violent attack, a police van was present, but because they were so few, the police did not take charge. “Some men asked them to fire into the air to quell the protestors, because the mob had no weapons to fire back…Shama and her husband might have survived if the police had taken timely action.”
Heavy contingents of police did arrive at the scene after the crowd had killed the couple. A local media reports that the police have arrested at least 42 people in connection with the case.
The police themselves filed the case and lodged the First Information Report (FIR), [no. 475/14], registered in Kot Radha Kishan Police Station. The FIR states that 500 to 600 men tortured the Christian couple. The FIR identifies 60 men by name and says that:
“the incident took place after the above-nominated persons gathered a crowd of people and roused their passion though false announcements from the mosque (loudspeakers) of desecration of the Qur’an.”
The remains of the couple were hastily buried at midnight, to avoid Christian leaders being able to officiate, as had been earlier intended.
The dead woman’s father Mukhtar Masih on Wednesday filed a petition with the help of Christian organization The Voice Society against the government’s decision to become the complainant.
Talking to World Watch Monitor, he said he had served as a bonded laborers’ leader for years, “and I know tactics the government uses to oppress us…Last night when I left the village, it had been decided that the funeral would be held the next day. But instead it was hastily done at midnight, as if our children were thieves. The Pakistani Christian community has already seen the government’s lack of seriousness in providing justice to them in the case of Joseph Colony (in Lahore), where the state is also a complainant.
“My daughter Yasmeen is the eyewitness of the entire incident, but she is not included in the FIR, so how can I know the state is committed to providing us justice?” he despaired.
The news went viral and was flashed onto all Pakistani TV channels, after which Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif immediately constituted a three-member committee headed by Secretary for Minority Affairs and Human Rights Javed Iqbal.
Talking to World Watch Monitor, Iqbal said the committee would soon visit the place and submit a report to the Chief Minister.
Parliamentarian Mary Gill, of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-(Nawaz), told World Watch Monitor that the Chief Minister had already announced a police Task Force to deal with the issue of so-called ‘vigilante justice’.
“The landmark judgment by the Supreme Court that came out in June this year provides a way to deal with the menace of this evil…We are hoping to table a bill soon to eradicate this social evil that has taken root in our society in recent years.”
The killing of people merely on accusations, particularly of those accused of ‘blasphemy’, is becoming commonplace in Pakistan.
In 2009 more than 100 houses of Christians were looted and set on fire in the city of Gojra.
In 2013, thousands of Muslim fundamentalists attacked Joseph Colony, a Christian locality in the heart of Lahore.
The BBC reports that Muslims still constitute a majority of those prosecuted for blasphemy, followed by Muslim minority Ahmadis. However, as Christians constitute 1.5% of the population, the proportion of blasphemy cases is comparably much higher.
According to Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), there have been more than 52 extrajudicial killings in the context of blasphemy in two decades in Pakistan.