Pakistan: man sentenced to death for being Christian

 The Pakistani high court yesterday ratified a sentence passed by a lower court under the country's 1986 blasphemy law, to condemn a Christian man, Ayub Masih, to death. The international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, has appealed for the international community to protest at the sentence. Ayub Masih, a Christian father of a family from the small town of Arifwala in Punjab province, 450 miles south of Islamabad, was arrested in October 1996. On 27 April 1998 he was sentenced to death by a court in Sahiwal - in accordance with Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code - for "insulting the Prophet Mohamed". The arrest took place following a complaint by his Islamic neighbour, Mohamed Akram, who said he had been offended by utterances of Ayub Masih against Islam. To this day Masih insists upon his innocence. Aid to the Church in Need says that there is good reason to be sceptical about the accusations by Akram. The blasphemy law appears to have provided him with a welcome opportunity to gain possession of the house and land of the Masih family. The Masih family was forced to leave the village immediately after his arrest, and local officials at once handed over his house to the complainant. Nine days after the verdict against Masih, Bishop John Joseph of the diocese of Faisalabad reportedly took his own life in front of the court house in Sahiwal as a protest against the blasphemy law. In response to this, the death sentence against Masih was initially suspended. However, on 24 July 2001 there was a new hearing of the case by the High Court of Pakistan. On 26 July, the local newspaper Nawa-e-Waqt, reported that on the day of the hearing a crowd of Muslim extremists gathered in front of the court house and shouted threats against the judges hearing the case. The confirmation of the death sentence of 1998 has been interpreted by observers as having been influenced by threats of violence against the court. Only between one and two per cent of the 132 million Pakistanis are Christians. Any judges or lawyers who dare to defend Christians in Pakistan are in constant danger of their lives. The Muslim judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was murdered in October 1997, after having cleared two young Christians on a charge of blasphemy in February 1995. Aid to the Church in Need is calling for letters of protest against this decision by the High Court of Pakistan. Please address your letters to: His Excellency, Pervez Musharaf, President of Pakistan, Aiwan-e-Sadr, Islamabad, Pakistan; Fax: 0092-51 -811390 Or to: Ms. Shahida Jamil, Minister of Law, Pak Secretariat, Block S, 3rd Floor, Islamabad, Pakistan: Fax: 0092-51-9202628

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