Five Christian families in rural Pakistan have gone into hiding after death threats were made against an 18-year-old because of his alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Sonu Arshad, who lives in the remote village of Sukheki, 200 kilometres north of Lahore, belongs to one of the families – the only Christians in the village.
The families fled on Friday, 3 November, after a Facebook page purporting to be that of a local TV channel posted a photograph of the teenager and asked locals to “burn his church and give him the death penalty”.
There were rumours that a mob formed following the local Muslim community’s Friday prayers, but the chief of police in the nearby city of Daska told World Watch Monitor the situation was now “under control” and that a police case had been filed against the unidentified people who created the fake Facebook page.
“There is no evidence that Arshad committed any crime,” Tahir Hussain said. “This is a fake campaign and the case has been forwarded to the Federal Investigation Agency to identify those who made this fake Facebook page.”
The TV channel, Madhani, has not commented or responded to the use of its logos, etc., which means that the case has not received much coverage in the mainstream Pakistani media, to the Christian community’s relief.
Local Christian councillor Naseer Ghulam said he had “no knowledge where the family has gone”.
“No-one knows the reason for accusing [Arshad] through this smear campaign,” he added.
Pakistan has the most stringent blasphemy laws in the world, which have been used disproportionately against religious minorities – 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.
Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony said last week the country’s controversial blasphemy law “cannot be revoked”, while the government has set up a regulatory body to monitor “blasphemous” content online.
Meanwhile, a 70-year-old Christian man, on bail awaiting his trial for blasphemy, died on Saturday (4 November). Mukhtar Masih was living in Gujranwala when he was accused of speaking ill against Islam, on 29 January this year. The Cantonment Police Station registered a complaint, no. 19/17, arrested him and sent him to jail.
Aneeqa Maria, co-ordinator of The Voice Society, told World Watch Monitor Masih’s bail was secured on 16 May and that his case was still awaiting trial.
Masih’s son, Griffin, told World Watch Monitor that it was no longer safe for them to live in Gujranwala, so he had taken his father and other family members to Mansehra, near to where he worked in the Bach Christian Hospital.
In August, Mukhtar Masih was operated on for a knee injury, after which he was given a heavy dose of antibiotics. But he was not taking sufficient food with the medicine, and developed a stomach ulcer. “Early this month he was diagnosed as having a hole in his small intestine, and an operation could not save his life,” his son said.
Pakistan is 4th on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian. Several Christians have been killed in Pakistan following charges of blasphemy, and others jailed, including the Christian woman Asia Bibi, who has been on death row since 2010.