'My Uncle Was Only Trying To Do A Good Deed By Cleaning The Street': Nephew Of Christian Man Attacked Over Blasphemy Rumours In Pakistan Tells Swarajya

Swati Goel Sharma

May 27, 2024, 11:13 AM | Updated May 30, 2024, 02:49 PM IST

Victim Nazir Masih, who is believed to be hospitalised
Victim Nazir Masih, who is believed to be hospitalised
  • Cleaning of street by a Christian man in Pakistan was misinterpreted as deliberate defiling of an Islamic holy text, leading to a deadly mob attack.
  • Graphic footage showing a mob attempting to lynch an elderly, unarmed man while simultaneously vandalising his home recently went viral. The disturbing scenes, which have sparked outrage and condemnation, originated from Pakistan.

    According to Pakistani media reports, the victim has been identified as Nazir Masih, a Christian resident of Sargodha city in Punjab province. The attack was allegedly provoked by a rumour that Masih had burned pages of the Quran, thus committing 'blasphemy'.

    Incidents of mob lynching over allegations of blasphemy have become shockingly common in Pakistan, disproportionately victimising religious minorities.

    Although the impulse to exact mob justice over blasphemy accusations has deep historical roots in the Islamic world, a radical social and political movement over the past ten years has led to an alarming rise in vigilante actions.

    This movement was led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who died in 2020 after founding the hardline Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

    Under Rizvi's leadership, the TLP amassed a large and fervent following which, influenced by his incendiary rhetoric, is known to perpetuate brutal acts of violence.

    The impact of the movement has extended into India as well.

    Khadim Hussain Rizvi
    Khadim Hussain Rizvi

    In the Sargodha case, it was an act of social good by Masih that was tragically misinterpreted. The incident was described over the phone to Swarajya by Masih's nephew, Tariq Sajid.

    According to Sajid, a massive storm had swept through Mujahid Colony, where Masih lives with his family, on the night of May 24 and 25. The storm left the streets littered with debris, making it difficult for the passersby to walk.

    Masih had the street swept and the garbage piled in a corner near an electricity pole, which he then set on fire as is a common practice. Unknown to him, in the garbage was contents of a box containing pages of Islamic holy texts.

    Sajid explained that these boxes, known as Muqaddas Quran, are placed at various street corners across Pakistan by members of TLP to prevent disrespect to the Quran. Families or mosques are expected to place any discarded Islamic holy texts in these boxes rather than in the garbage.

    Sajid surmised that the box must have accidentally fallen during the storm, scattering its contents.

    An onlooker, seeing the burning garbage, mistakenly believed that Masih had intentionally burned the Quran to provoke Muslims. Her false assumption quickly spread as a rumour, leading to a violent mob descending upon Masih's home.

    "My uncle was only trying to do a good deed by cleaning the street, but see what it did to him," said Sajid.

    Members of the mob dragged Masih out, which also housed a shoe factory. They vandalised the property, looted its contents, and then set the house ablaze. Masih, who is 75, was brutally beaten.

    Videos of the incident circulated on social media. In the footage, some individuals can be heard urging fellow mob members not to take the factory goods home.

    When the police arrived, they quickly took Masih into custody. According to Sajid, no family member has been allowed to contact Masih since then. The authorities have only informed them that he is in a hospital in Islamabad.

    Sajid, however, believes that Masih succumbed to his injuries and that the information of his death is being withheld from them.

    One of Masih's sons, Naweed, was also beaten but suffered fewer injuries and is recuperating in a hospital in Sargodha, said Sajid.

    While the family remains uncertain about Masih’s condition, they have learned that he has been charged under Sections 295A (deliberately hurting religious sentiments) and 295B (defiling Quran) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). If convicted, these charges carry severe penalties including life imprisonment.

    The family is worried about social ostracisation and the constant threat to Masih’s life if he returns home.

    History shows that individuals accused of blasphemy have often been murdered by fanatic mobs even years after the initial accusations. Similar fanaticism has been witnessed in India and elsewhere.

    For instance, Uttar Pradesh resident Kamlesh Tiwari was killed in 2019 for an accusation of blasphemy made against him in 2015. Author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in 2022 in a murderous attempt for an alleged act of blasphemy in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses.

    Sajid, who is an advocate in Pakistan’s Supreme Court, anticipates the following course of action based on his observation of similar cases: A committee comprising Islamic clerics and Christian priests will likely be formed to settle the matter out of court. The Christian priests would pardon the suspects.

    While a court trial would occur, the Christian side would not testify against the accused, resulting in the suspects’ acquittal. Masih would be acquitted for want of evidence. Nevertheless, the threat to his life would persist as long as he lives.

    Despite the police charging the suspects under numerous sections of the PPC — they have been booked under Section 324 (attempted murder), 186 (obstructing public officials), 353 (assault on a public official), 436 (arson), 440 (mischief by fire), 149 (unlawful assembly), along with Section 7 (punishment for acts of terrorism) and 11WW (lynching) of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 — Sajid remains sceptical about justice.

    He cites the Jaranwala incident from last year, where hundreds of Muslims barged into a Christian colony in the Jaranwala area of Faisalabad over a rumour of blasphemy by two Christians. They damaged 26 church buildings, nearly 80 Christian homes, and several schools. The police made some arrests but, as per Sajid, every suspect is out on bail and the investigation has stopped.

    According to Sajid, the trigger for such mob violence is often jealousy.

    Masih is one of the few well-to-do Christians in a colony that has Christians on one side and Muslims living opposite them, he said. Masih’s Christian background traces back four generations when his great-grandfather, a member of a Jatt family, served in the British Army and subsequently adopted Christianity.

    While Sajid did not provide specific population figures, he noted that the Christian community in the area is significant, as evidenced by the presence of three to four churches. 

    He believes that it was jealousy led a woman to start the rumour of blasphemy against Masih to ruin him.

    "I've been observing blasphemy cases since the 1980s, and in ninety per cent of the cases, personal jealousy is the driving force behind rumours of blasphemy against members of minority communities," he said. "Sometimes, something as simple as a Christian wearing a nice suit can be enough to incite them to plot our downfall," he added.

    Faraz Pervaiz, a Christian from Lahore, faced similar persecution over blasphemy in 2014 and has been living as a refugee in Thailand ever since. He has a perpetual arrest warrant against him in Pakistan and faces a severe threat to his life if he ever returns.

    Faraz told Swarajya that, like Hindus, if Pakistani Christians had the option to migrate, most would seize it. However, he lamented that unlike Hindus, who can often obtain visas to India by citing religious reasons, Christians face stringent barriers.

    Despite a recent Indian law offering fast-tracked citizenship to persecuted Christian minorities in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, many still struggle to get past the visa office in Pakistan. "They ask us all sorts of questions — do you want to act as a spy?"

    "Unlike Hindus who have India, Pakistani Christians have no natural homeland," Faraz remarked.

    Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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