By Patrick Goodenough | May 24, 2019 |
LEAD director Sardar Mushtaq Gill, center, and others demonstrate against blasphemy laws and persecution of minorities in Pakistan. (Photo: Legal Evangelical Association Development)
(CNSNews.com) – It was one of the most gruesome killings linked to allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan, and now two Muslims convicted of burning alive a young Christian man and his pregnant wife have been acquitted.
Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama were attacked and murdered in Punjab province in 2014 by a Muslim mob enraged by claims that a Qur’an had been desecrated.
Mobilized by announcements over mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages, the mob dragged the couple from a building where they were being held against their will.
Amid cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “kill infidel Christians,” according to eyewitnesses, the assailants beat Shahzad and Shama with clubs before burning them alive in a brick kiln where they worked as indentured laborers. The oldest of their three children, then aged six, witnessed the murder. Relatives reportedly fled the scene with the other two.
In a country where vigilante killings of people accused of blasphemy are not rare, the grisly slaying sent shockwaves through minority communities and drew condemnation further afield, with a senior Vatican official, the late Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, saying he was “shocked by the immense barbarity of this act.”
“I ask myself, how can one stand by and watch when crimes religion declares to be legitimate are committed?” Tauran, who was in charge of interfaith dialogue at the Holy See, was quoted as saying on Vatican Radio. “Not even animals behave like this!”
Then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged justice would be done, saying that “a responsible state cannot tolerate mob rule and public lynching with impunity.”
Eyewitness estimates of the mob put the number at between 400 and 1,000.
Police in Punjab registered a case against 660 individuals, and the province’s anti-terrorism court (ATC) later indicted 106 of them. In November 2016, the ATC sentenced five men to death, and ten others to jail terms for their roles in the killings. The rest were acquitted.
The five on death row appealed, and last week the Lahore High Court acquitted two of them – Hafiz Ishtiaq, an imam, and Muhammad Hanif – while upholding the death sentences of the remaining three.
‘Cycle of violence’
Blasphemy is a capital offense in the world’s second biggest Islamic country, where mainstream “Barelvi” Sunni Muslims are known for their zealous views regarding blasphemy and shari’a.
Statistics compiled by human rights groups show that Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities are disproportionately affected by the notorious laws, while outside the legal system numerous instances of mob violence and murders linked to blasphemy accusations have been recorded.