Christian in Pakistan Charged with ‘Blasphemy’ after Argument with Muslim

Two female relatives taken into custody are released after his arrest.

First Information Report of blasphemy accusation against Nadeem Masih. (Morning Star News)

First Information Report of blasphemy accusation against Nadeem James. (Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Christian father of two in Pakistan was arrested last night under blasphemy charges after a Muslim friend accused him of forwarding a poem on an instant messaging application, sources said.

Nadeem James, a 26-year-old Catholic in Gujrat District, had argued about religion with his Muslim friend, Yasir Bashir, a few days before Bashir accused him of using WhatsApp messaging to forward a poem allegedly disrespectful of Muhammad and other Islamic figures, James’ brother told Morning Star News.

Talking by phone from an undisclosed location, Shahbaz James said police had falsely charged his younger brother under pressure from local Islamist leaders, particularly Hafiz Muhammad Tariq, prayer leader of Yaqoobabad mosque in Sarai Alamgir, Gujrat District. Shahbaz James said the family learned on Sunday evening (July 10) that Bashir had registered the case with police.

“We were not at home when the police raided our house to arrest Nadeem,” he said. “However, when the cops couldn’t find any of us in the premises, they took away two women of the family – my wife and the wife of my elder brother, Faryad.”

The two sisters-in-law of Nadeem James were released immediately after he was arrested last night, police officials told Morning Star News. Shahbaz James and his older brother have taken shelter with a Christian organization. Nadeem James, son of James Masih, was identified as Nadeem Masih in the police First Information Report (FIR).

“The charge against my brother is completely baseless,” Shahbaz James said. “Nadeem is uneducated and could not have possibly sent that text message. I’m certain that Yasir Bashir downloaded the supposedly blasphemous text onto Nadeem’s phone and then forwarded it to his cell number to build a case against my brother.”

A police official who requested anonymity told Morning Star News that officers registered the case against James under pressure from local Islamist leaders who had threatened to stage protests in the district if police delayed filing the FIR. The site of the alleged blasphemy is near Jehlum, where army troops were deployed in November 2015 after several hundred Muslims went on a rampage on suspicions that an Ahmadi man had desecrated the Koran. The mob burned down an Ahmadi place of worship and a cardboard factory owned by an Ahmadi.

Police confirmed to Morning Star News that Nadeem James was arrested Tuesday night (July 12). Relatives are caring for his two children, as he and his wife are separated, according to his brother. Shahbaz James said the two women, Najma Faryad and Samreen Shahbaz, were taken into custody illegally in order to pressure the accused into surrendering himself.

Inspector Sanaullah Dhillon of the City Police Station in Sarai Alamgir had flatly denied that police had taken the two women into custody, telling Morning Star News the family was spreading fake reports on social media to malign Pakistan, but Gujrat District Police spokesman Muhammad Ateeq acknowledged that they had been in “protective custody for security reasons.”

Ateeq added that some 200 policemen had been deployed to the Yaqoobabad area to maintain law and order. He said police filed case No. 301/16 under Sections 295-C (defaming Muhammad. punishable by death and a fine) and 295-A (acts intended to outrage religious feelings, punishable by up to 10 years of prison and a fine) on the basis of evidence provided by Bashir.

“According to our initial investigation, the WhatsApp text was sent to Yasir Bashir’s cell number on July 4, and the two sides had been negotiating a settlement until the talks broke down and Yasir Bashir informed us about the issue,” he said.

He said that police had taken Bashir’s cell phone and SIM card and had been raiding sites in efforts to arrest Nadeem James.

Bashir remained inaccessible in spite of Morning Star News efforts to contact him.

There are three Christian homes in Yaqoobabad, while some 50 Christian families live in nearby Father’s Colony, Shahbaz James said.

Surge in Blasphemy Cases

According to a recent report, an alliance of hundreds of Islamist lawyers is behind a rise in blasphemy prosecutions in Punjab Province that continued until 2015, when stricter rules slowed the trend.

The alliance, Tehreek-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwwat (Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood), offers free legal advice to complainants and has packed courtrooms with representatives, a tactic critics say is designed to help gain convictions. The stated mission of the Khatam-e-Nubuwwat lawyers’ forum and its leader, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, is uncompromising: to use its expertise and influence to ensure that anyone insulting Islam or its prophet, Muhammad, is charged, tried and executed.

Since Khatam-e-Nubuwwat was founded 15 years ago, the number of criminal blasphemy cases filed in Punjab, the group’s home base and Pakistan’s most populous province, tripled to 336 by 2014, according to police figures. It fell to 210 in 2015 as stricter provincial rules were applied, though watchdog groups said the number was still too high.

Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy statues, including European governments, assert they are misused, with hundreds languishing in jails under false charges that could see them face fines, life imprisonment or death by hanging.

Christian rights activist Napolean Qayyum said that the case against Nadeem James is yet another instance of blasphemy laws being misused to settle personal disputes.

“Moreover, the police unlawfully took the two women into custody on the pretext of ‘securing’ them,” he said. “The women should have been allowed to go to their relatives if police thought their lives were in danger, but there was no legal justification to keep them in detention for so long.”

The incident arose days after a Christian who reported an attempt to blackmail him for allegedly blaspheming Islam’s prophet was sentenced to death in a bizarre case riddled with police irregularities. Anjum Naz Sindhu, 65-year-old Catholic owner of a prominent chain of schools in Gujranwala, received the death sentence on June 27 following conviction for blasphemy – as did the two men convicted of blackmailing him. Javed Naz and his Muslim friend Jaffar Ali were also sentenced to death for concealing or otherwise handling a recording of remarks that allegedly blasphemed Muhammad.

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone convicted of blasphemy, but anyone charged or accused of insulting Islam risks a violent death at the hands of vigilantes. A Christian laborer and his wife were thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln in 2014 after being wrongly accused of throwing pages of the Koran into the garbage.

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