A Pakistani bike shop owner has been accused of blasphemy after telling one of his customers that Christians believe Jesus to have been the final prophet.
Ashfaq Masih, 28, was arrested following accusations that he had “disrespected” Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
The incident took place in Lahore last Thursday (15 June) at Masih’s shop in the Bagarhian suburb of the city, near a sizeable Christian neighbourhood, the majority of whose inhabitants work as manual labourers.
As the argument unfolded, the owner of a nearby shop, Muhammad Ashfaq, joined a crowd of people who had amassed to hear what was going on.
Muhammad Ashfaq, a complainant in the case, told World Watch Monitor: “Even when other men had gathered, Ashfaq Masih maintained a disrespectful stance.
“While the argument was going on, someone informed the emergency police, who reached the spot and immediately put him in the police van and left.”
A local police chief, Wasim Akhtar, said the incident had been “unfortunate” but that the situation was “under control”. He added that Masih was not known to be suffering from any mental illness – something that has been used as a defence in similar cases, including two Christians accused of desecrating a Quran in 2015.
“Most of my customers are Christians and I have been running this shop for the last 17 years and no religious argument has ever happened before,” added Muhammad Ashfaq.
“Masih took over the shop about two years ago and this is the first time an argument like this has taken place. However, now a few children have informed us that he used to talk about religion.”
Masih’s mother, Zeenat, told World Watch Monitor that her son had been married for a few years but that his wife had never lived with him and he had become depressed.
“That morning he did not meet me and did not have breakfast before leaving,” she said. “Around 12pm, I was expecting him to return, when our neighbour came and told me that the police had arrested Ashfaq.
“My son is a straightforward person and doesn’t lie and doesn’t indulge in religious discussions. I just pray that God keeps him safe.”
Masih’s lawyer, Riaz Anjum, said he would file an application for bail.
“The family is extremely poor and have now fled,” he added. “We are in touch with the police and working so that the family can soon return to their home.”
Pakistan is fourth on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Pakistani Christians make up only 1.5 per cent of the total population but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.
Several Christian neighbourhoods have been attacked and set on fire following blasphemy accusations against Christians: in 2009, seven people died after an arson attack on a Christian neighbourhood in Gojra; then in 2013 a mob set fire to more than 100 Christian homes in Lahore’s Joseph Colony.
Recently, several blasphemy cases have been registered against Christians related to their actions on social media. For example, in September 2016, a 16-year-old Christian boy was accused of blasphemy after “liking” and sharing a post on Facebook which “defamed and disrespected” the Kaaba in Mecca, the building at the centre of Islam’s most sacred mosque. He has since twice been refused bail, despite his lawyers’ insistence that, as a child with no prior convictions, he should be released.
A 2011 Pew survey found that only 16 per cent of Pakistanis had a positive view of Christians. Because most Pakistani Christians come from low socio-economic backgrounds, they are often subject to criminal violence, and are sometimes accused of committing blasphemy to settle personal scores.