Date:  April 24, 2023

Illiterate workers accused of intentionally burning pages of Koran.

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

Location of Pakpattan District, Pakistan. (Map data © 2023 Google)

Location of Pakpattan District, Pakistan. (Map data © 2023 Google)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Christian widow and a Muslim gardener were arrested in Pakistan this month on blasphemy charges after they were accused of intentionally burning papers containing koranic verses, attorneys said.

The accusations arose when 46-year-old Mussarat Bibi and the Muslim, Muhammad Sarmad, were cleaning the storeroom of the Government Girls Higher Secondary School in 66-EB village, Arifwala tehsil of Pakpattan District, Punjab Province on April 15, attorney Javed Sahotra said.

“Both workers were told to clean the storeroom that was filled with paper and other scrapped items,” Sahotra said. “It has been alleged that they gathered the wasted paper and other scrap in a corner of the school and set them on fire. Some students later noticed that the burnt items also contained holy pages.”

School staff members, including principal Nasreen Saeed, were aware that Bibi and Sarmad had not burned Koranic pages intentionally; under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, intent must be proven, Sahotra said. Some students and teachers protested, but the principal and senior staff members tried to quell the protests.

On Wednesday (April 19), a local Muslim named Kashif Nadeem called a police helpline and accused the Christian woman of committing blasphemy by burning koranic pages at the girls’ school. Nadeem named only the Christian woman, but police found the gardener was also involved in setting the pages on fire, according to the First Information Report (FIR).

“The complainant also gathered a mob outside the school and started protesting against the incident,” Sahotra told Morning Star News. “Even though the school principal and other teachers told the police that Mussarat and Sarmad had not burned the pages intentionally as both were illiterate, the police arrested them to avoid unrest by the protesters.”

Attorney Lazar Allah Rakha, who also represents the impoverished Christian woman, told Morning Star News that police charged both Bibi and Sarmad under Section 295-B of the blasphemy statutes and sent them to Pakpattan jail on judicial remand. Section 295-B states, “Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Koran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

“Mussarat is innocent as she had no knowledge that the scrap material she and the gardener were destroying contained holy pages,” Rakha said.

The FIR filed on the complaint of a police officer states that the issue was brought to their attention on Wednesday (April 19), four days after the alleged incident, he said.

“It is unfortunate that despite knowing the fact that both workers were illiterate and had not committed the act intentionally, the police still arrested and charged them with blasphemy,” Rakha said. “We are very hopeful that the court will allow Mussarat’s release on bail and will also consider dropping the serious charge against her, because there was clearly no intent to commit any sort of blasphemy.”

Bibi has three daughters, two married, while the youngest is 14 and lives with her mother. Bibi’s husband, Barkat Masih, had worked as a teacher in the same school, and after his death five years ago, the institution hired her as an office worker in accordance with government service rules.

“She couldn’t be employed as a teacher because she was illiterate,” Sahotra said. “We are also in contact with some influential Muslims of the area and are hoping to solve the matter with their support. There is no imminent security risk to other Christian families that live in the village, as a majority of the people know that both Mussarat and the Muslim gardener have not burned the holy pages intentionally.”

The two lawyers said they would file a bail application this week, as previously courts were closed due to Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Foreigner Charged

The case comes two days after a Chinese engineer working on a dam project in northern Pakistan was arrested and imprisoned in a rare case of a foreigner being swept up in Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws.

The Chinese national, identified only as Tian, was on a field visit at the Dasu hydropower project, led by Chinese construction and engineering company Gezhouba Group, on April 16 when Muslim workers accused him of making blasphemous remarks and gestures against Allah and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Reports said that Tian had allegedly complained to workers at the dam that “precious time” was being lost due to prayer breaks, which enraged some of them, and they fanned out to nearby villages, whipping up emotions. Within minutes, a frenzied crowd blocked the main highway and threatened to storm the power project unless the Chinese engineer was arrested.

Though police and government officials tried to placate the protesters, the mob calmed down only after they were assured that the foreigner would be charged with blasphemy. A case was filed against the Chinese engineer under Section 295-C, which calls for the death sentence for insulting Muhammad, and Section 6/7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

He was sent to jail on a 14-day judicial remand by an anti-terrorism court in Abbottabad on April 17. 

The Chinese engineer told the court that he was innocent and had been entrapped in the blasphemy charges because he had asked Muslim workers not to delay work on the pretext that they were fasting, according to media reports.

Blasphemy of Muhammad is punishable by death in Pakistan, though no executions have ever been carried out.

In December 2021, a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot, in eastern Pakistan, was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob that accused him of blasphemy.

Rights groups say hundreds of people are languishing in prison accused of blasphemy as judges delay trials, fearing retribution against themselves.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.