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Bail Denied to Christian under Islamist Pressure in Pakistan

Bail Denied to Christian under Islamist Pressure in Pakistan

LAHORE, Pakistan, July 14, 2023 (Morning Star News) – Police in Pakistan on Tuesday (July 11) kept a Christian charged with blasphemy from appearing at his bail hearing, compelling a judge to bow to pressure from a crowd of slogan-shouting Muslims and deny his release, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad, resident of a village near Sargodha, had been kept in protective custody since July 3 in spite having been granted pre-arrest bail, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria.

“The police denied justice to Shahzad to appease the religious parties,” Maria said. “They knew he would get bail on merit, which is why they deliberately kept him from appearing before the judge.”

She said that as soon as Shahzad’s case was announced for hearing, Muslim extremists began shouting inflammatory slogans in the Sargodha courtroom of Additional Sessions Judge Nazir Ahmed.

“They shouted slogans against Shahzad, demanding that he be punished and vowing to step up protests in case he was freed on bail,” Maria told Morning Star News. “I began my arguments amid this ruckus, pleading for the judge to grant permanent bail because the case against my client was not on merit.”

She also told the judge that Shahzad could not be charged with blasphemy as he had posted verses from the Bible without making any personal remark, much less one that that could be termed disrespectful to Islam.

Maria said she was taken aback when the Investigating Officer (IO) approached the court without Shahzad.

“When the judge asked about Shahzad, the IO told the court he was not in police custody and denied knowing his whereabouts,” she said. “I countered his claim, telling the judge that Shahzad had been taken into protective custody in my presence. But my pleas were ignored and the judge, ostensibly under pressure from the mob, rejected our plea for giving permanent bail to Shahzad since he had not appeared in court.”

Police connived with Muslim leaders to deny bail to the Christian, she said.

“After the proceeding ended, around 200 religious activists gathered near the main gate of the courts accompanied by groups of lawyers affiliated with various extremist parties,” she said. “Some local lawyers told us that we could be attacked so we should leave the premises from the rear exit. The situation was so tense that we had to wait in the bar association room till the mobs left the premises.”

Maria said that she learned on Wednesday (July 12) that, in order to perpetuate the ruse, police had delayed formally recording Shahzad’s arrest and sending him to judicial lockup until hours after Tuesday’s hearing.

The complainant, Muhammad Imran Ullah, is affiliated with Muslim extremist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also has strong ties to banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, according to Maria and other local sources.

“Ullah is baying for Shahzad’s blood and is hell-bent on exacting his personal vengeance,” Maria said. “Some people, including local Christians, are claiming that they are negotiating a reconciliation with religious parties, but this act of subverting the bail proceedings has laid bare their claims.”

Haroon Shahzad’s brother, Irfan Shahzad, said the family was “very worried” for his safety.

“We were quite hopeful that he would be freed on bail, but the unfolding events have dashed our hopes,” he said.

Muslims have told the family that Shahzad would be pardoned if he publicly apologized for his alleged act, he added.

“Christian elders and political leaders are engaged in negotiations to reach a settlement, but so far there hasn’t been a breakthrough,” he said.

Sargodha District Police Officer Faisal Kamran could not be reached for comment.

Shahzad, 45, was charged with blasphemy on June 30, after he posted Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, a village near Sargodha city in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Maria said the district’s police chief and in-charge of the Sargodha Cantt police station had assured her of keeping Shahzad safe, citing threats to his life when she was forced to surrender him into police custody.

“The police forcibly kept Shahzad in their custody even though he was on pre-arrest bail,” she said. “The SHO [Station House Officer] had said there were serious threats to his life because of involvement of religious activists so the police would keep him safe and bring him to the court hearing under its protection.”

Shahzad, a Christian paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Corinthians 10:18-21, regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice and likening Muslims to pagans.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after the Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers asking people to gather for a protest, sources told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, a majority of the Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

Sources told Morning Star News that the blasphemy charge stems from personal grudges against Shahzad by the complainant, Ullah. Ullah had engaged in legal battles with Shahzad over a piece of land allotted by the government for constructing a church building.

“Because of the land’s value, Imran and some others resorted to repeated court injunctions to stop the Christians from building their church,” local Christian politician Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said. “The stay orders were finally removed last year after a four-year legal battle, and the complainant nurtured a grudge due to this.”

Ullah and Shahzad were also at odds because Ullah, a Muslim, had married a Christian woman, and area Muslims also resented Shahzad because he had the financial standing, as a paint contractor, to fight for rights when local issues arose, according to Chaudhry.

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.

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Article originally published by Morning Star News. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/zms