Date: September 23, 2020
By Elizabeth Kendal
On 8 September a court in Lahore sentenced Asif Pervaiz (37) to death for blasphemy. The Christian father of four has been in prison since October 2013, when he was accused of sending blasphemous text messages from his mobile phone. Pervaiz denies the charge and claims his accuser, a former supervisor, had been obsessively pressuring him to convert to Islam, without success. The court ruled that Pervaiz must serve a three-year prison term for phone misuse and be fined 50,000 rupees (US$300), and then be 'hanged by his neck till his death'. His lawyer, Saiful Malook (who secured Asia Bibi's acquittal in October 2018), laments that a judge could issue such a ruling in the absence of any evidence. 'Although I'm greatly disappointed by the ruling in this case, one cannot ignore the fact that it has become a norm of trial court judges hearing blasphemy cases to convict the accused no matter how weak the prosecution's case is.' Malook will appeal the conviction in the Lahore High Court.
Similarly, Shafqat Emmanuel Masih and his wife, Shagufta Kausar, of Gojra, Punjab, have been in prison since June 2013, when they were accused of sending blasphemous text messages to Muhammad Hussain, an Islamic cleric at a Gojra mosque. Shafqat - who is paralysed from the waist down - was tortured during interrogation but only 'confessed' after authorities threatened to torture his wife. In April 2014 a sessions court in Toba Tek Singh, Punjab Province, found Shafqat and Shagufta guilty of sending English language blasphemous texts and sentenced them to death, even though both are illiterate [RLPB 539 (04 Mar 20)]. It seems a spiteful neighbour may have framed them. Held in separate prisons, Shafqat and Shagufta have not seen each other since 2014. Their children - Zain (15), Danish (12), Joshua (10) and Sarah (9) - are being cared for by a paternal aunt. The appeal against their sentence was to be heard earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive delays. According to Church in Chains, the appeal will be heard in the Lahore Appeals Court on Thursday 24 September; Saiful Malook will represent the couple.
On 25 August Amnesty International lamented the 'alarming uptick in blasphemy accusations across Pakistan', noting that it 'underscores the urgency with which the draconian laws that enable abuse and risk lives must be repealed'. As for the 'alarming uptick', Pakistani police registered more than 40 blasphemy cases in a month, from late July to late August. Moreover, four people had been brutally gunned down in supposed retaliation for 'blasphemy': two Shi'ite Muslims, one Ahmadi (deemed heretical) sect member, and Tahir Ahmed Naseem (57) - a US citizen, former Ahmadi Muslim, now self-declared prophet who had been lured back to Pakistan. Faisal Khan (15), the teenager who shot and killed Naseem in open court on 29 July, is being glorified and celebrated as a 'holy warrior'. Lawyers are lining up to defend him and Islamists are demanding his release; meanwhile the prosecuting attorney has been forced into hiding. Despite Asia Bibi's acquittal - and possibly because of it (as reactionary Islamists take the law into their own hands) - the situation is not improving but seems to be getting worse by the day.
Pastor Zafar Bhatti (56) has been in Rawalpindi's Adiala Central Jail since July 2012, when he was charged with sending blasphemous text messages. Despite being tortured to extract a 'confession', Zafar insists he is innocent. Pastor Zafar founded and led a small ministry called 'Jesus World Mission'. He and his co-workers used to visit the poor, offering basic medicines, Bible readings and prayer until a local Islamic leader filed a complaint at New Town police station, Rawalpindi, in which he accused Zafar of blasphemy. On 3 May 2017 the court deemed Zafar guilty, but instead of sentencing him to death (as is mandatory for blasphemy) the judge sentenced Zafar to life imprisonment because there was 'no concrete evidence' against him - the phone in question was not even registered in his name. Zafar has suffered terribly in prison; he has been poisoned, savagely beaten, and must be kept in high security for his own safety. Postponed seven times, his appeal is yet to be heard. On 3 September Zafar suffered a heart attack in his cell. He has received medical treatment and is now reportedly stable. His lawyers are appealing for bail to be granted and for an early appeal hearing against his conviction.
PLEASE PRAY THAT OUR ALMIGHTY GOD WILL
* intervene on behalf of Asif Pervaiz, Shafqat and Shagufta, Pastor Zafar Bhatti and more than a dozen other Christians (some of whom are mere youths) who are currently in prison (around nine on death row) after being accused of blaspheming Islam.
May the Lord protect them and their families from all harm; may he supply all their needs and cause justice to flow (Amos 5:24); may he draw them close, sustain their faith and assure them of his promise, 'I am with you always, to the end of the age' (Matthew 28:20 ESV). Lord have mercy!
* protect, defend, sustain, guide and bless Saiful Malook (a principled Muslim, and doubtless Pakistan's most courageous human rights lawyer); may he be blessed with the greatest blessing of all - that is, to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. 'O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see' (from 2 Kings 6:15-17 ESV).
* raise up domestic and international indignation and pressure, not just against the blasphemy law, but the dangerous escalation of genocidal hatred in radicalised Pakistan; may the 'Lord of the Breakthough', Baal-perazim (from 2 Samuel 5:17-21), break through Islam's hold over Pakistan.