Pakistan: Church protests follow death of Catholic in custody

Communal tension is rising yet again in the Punjab province of Pakistan, where crowds of Christians took to the streets following the death in custody of a Catholic man accused of blasphemy against Islam.

Police say Fanish Masih, 24, who used the surname Robert, hanged himself, but rights activists and Christians claim authorities tortured and killed him.

A group of 10 priests led about 2,000 Christians in a protest rally on Tuesday in Sialkot, where Robert reportedly was found dead in his cell that morning.

The protest march began at a cinema and ended five kilometres away at Catholic-run Bethania Hospital, where the body is being held.

"Stop religious extremism and the massacre of Christians," the crowd chanted.

One of the Catholic priests leading the rally, Father Shehzada Khurram, parish priest in Robert's hometown of Jatekhe, promised the crowd that the funeral would not be held until the police filed a case on the "murder."

Robert was arrested on 11 Sepember in Jatekhe on charges of blasphemy after allegedly throwing part of a Qur'an into a gutter.

Other accounts said he had pulled the hand of a Muslim girl, and the girl's parents were quoted in early reports as saying they had seen the pages from the Qur'an "soaked with dirty water."

Those comments sparked inflammatory speeches broadcast over the local mosque's loudspeakers, and that afternoon a mob set the nearby Calvary Church ablaze. It is now under heavy police guard.

Robert was moved to a jail in Sialkot, where police claim he alledgedly hanged himself during the night of 14 Sepember with the cord used to tie the pants Pakistani men usually wear. But family members claim Robert's body bore torture marks and his ribs were broken, according to media reports.

Those claims were backed up by at least one report, in the "Daily Times," which quoted Punjab Minister for Minority Affairs Kamran Michael as saying he had seen signs of torture. Other reports, however, cited police officials as saying an investigating team that included doctors found no such marks on the body.

Arshad Mahmood Malik, regional director for the government's Ministry of Human Rights, told UCA News the case was suspicious.

"One cannot understand suicide in jail. It seems illiterate people are easy to exploit in the name of religion by those who then take the law into their own hands," he said.

Protests also erupted in Lahore, the Punjab capital, on the afternoon of Sept. 15. About 400 Christians gathered in front of the Lahore press club, blocking the road for a time.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace issued a press release.

"We demand a credible investigation and registration of a case under a murder charge," it said. "The persons responsible for the death of innocent youth ... should be brought to justice," Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of Lahore, the commission's chairperson, and Peter Jacob, its executive secretary, wrote in the release.

The Church officials pointed to the country's controversial blasphemy laws as part of the problem, reiterating a long-held Church concern. They urged once again that these be repealed.

"For religious minorities these laws have proven to be a catastrophe which can surface anytime anywhere," they said. "We consider this a failure on the part of the Punjab provincial government and Federal government."

The blasphemy laws, introduced in 1986 under a military-led government, make an insult to the Qur'an punishable by up to life imprisonment, while conviction for insulting Prophet Muhammad brings an automatic death sentence.

The arson of Calvary Church attracted the condemnation of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Both leaders called for restraint on 12 September and ordered authorities to investigate the matter.

Zardari promised the government would pay for the reconstruction of the damaged church.

Just a month earlier, 10 Catholics were killed in rioting in the Punjab city of Gojra and the nearby village of Korian. A Muslim mob vandalized and looted 113 Christian houses and damaged four Protestant churches in these areas.

That and an attack in January on a Catholic church in the Punjab village of Kot Lakha Singh are among at least seven incidents of anti-Christian violence in Pakistan this year.

Source: UCAN

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