LAHORE, Pakistan — A young, married Pakistani Christian couple, including the pregnant mother of three children, were “brutally tortured and burned alive” at a brick kiln Nov. 4 in the Punjab province following “a false accusation of blasphemy,” according to the brother of the slain husband.
The deaths of Shahzad Masih, 28, and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi, 24, were vociferously decried by Christians in the predominantly Muslim country.
“They were brutally tortured and burnt alive,” Shabhaz Masih, elder brother of Shahzad, told the Register from the village of Chak 59, located near Kot Radha Kishan in the Kasur district in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Six brothers of the Masih family, of whom Shahzad was the youngest, had been working in a brick kiln in the village as bonded laborers for 17 years. Trouble started on the evening of Nov. 2, Shabhaz said, when Shama was burning the waste after cleaning up the house following the death of their father Nazar Masih on Oct. 30.
The manager of the brick kiln where the bonded laborer brothers worked spotted pages that allegedly contained Quranic verses from Islam’s holy book in the rubbish being burned by Shama, who Shabhaz said couldn’t read, and alerted local Muslims.
After the announcement of the alleged desecration of the Quran was made over loudspeakers in neighboring villages, the couple feared for their lives and wanted to flee. But Mouhammad Youaf Gujjar, the owner of the brick kiln, instead confined them in a room in the brick kiln.
Early on the morning of Nov. 4, hundreds of Muslims came to the village in tractor trolleys and motor bikes.
“A mob attacked a Christian couple after accusing them of desecration of the Holy Quran and later burnt their bodies at a brick kiln where they worked,” local police station official Bin-Yameen said, as quoted by AFP on Nov. 5. The report stated that Pakistan’s brick kiln workers are frequently subject to harsh practices, and often treated as indentured laborers.
But speaking to Register, Sardar Musthaq Gill, a Christian lawyer activist who rushed to the village on hearing about the killing, denounced the police claims that the corpses were burned after their death at the hands of the mob.
“The mob broke the roof, pulled the couple out and tortured them,” said Gill. “They were paraded naked and set on fire
Asked whether his family was given any compensation for the horrific murder of his younger brother, older brother Shabhaz told the Register, “We don’t want money. We want justice.”
“This is a question of our dignity. If we take money, they will start killing more and more of us [Christians] and get away by giving money,” Shabhaz predicted about how violent Muslim zealots would react if compensation payments were made to members of the country’s small Christian minority who have been victimized by murders.
More than 96% of Pakistan’s more than 180 million people are Muslims. Christians and Hindus comprise around 1.5% each, while Ahmadis, Sikhs, and adherents of tribal religions account for the remaining 1%.
Though police claimed to have arrested dozens of people and charged more than 600 people with the murder, Catholic Church leaders criticized the civic response to the tragedy.
Dominican Father James Channan, director of the Peace Center in Punjab’s capital city of Lahore, told Catholic News Agency Nov. 4, “To burn alive on mere accusation by a mob of fanatic Pakistani Muslims is a barbaric act in the modern age: I condemn it in the strongest words possible.”
“It is worse when fanatics take [blasphemy] laws in their hands and beat or kill on simple accusations,” Father Channan added. “It has become a tool to persecute Christians and other minorities. Very often police does not provide protection to the accused due to the angry mob.”
“The government has absolutely failed to protect its citizens’ right to life,” said the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, in a press statement condemning the killing.
“The perpetrators involved in such incidents have never been brought to justice due to lack of political will. It makes [religious] minorities vulnerable and a soft target,” said Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, the NCJP director, in the statement.
A statement from the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, a Catholic advocacy group set up in memory of the late Cecil Choudhry, a prominent Catholic lay leader who was been a bitter critic of the country’s harsh blasphemy law, called “the brutal killing a grim reminder that intolerance in the name of religion in Pakistan has escalated beyond the rule of law.”
“This is the umpteenth time that crowds have been provoked on religious sentiments to settle personal scores and dispense mob justice. Crowds and police are repeatedly setting precedents for street justice; which violates the Constitution and the Penal Code of Pakistan,” the statement read.
Christians were not the only ones shocked by the latest killing linked to the blasphemy law, Section 295c of Pakistan Penal Code, that provides for mandatory death sentence even for unintentional words as well as actions perceived as blasphemy.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the murder of the Christian couple, describing it as “an unacceptable crime.”
“A responsible state cannot tolerate mob rule and public lynching with impunity,” Sharif said.
Imran Khan, an outspoken leader of the opposition Pakistan Movement for Justice, condemned the killings. “I condemn, in strongest terms, the burning alive of the Christian couple,” he said. “Oppression and killings of minorities must end.”
The Asia Bibi Case
Despite such criticism, there is no shortage of support for the blasphemy law in Pakistan, from the police to the media, as demonstrated by the ongoing case of Asia Bibi.
The illiterate Christian farm worker and mother of five was sentenced to death in November 2010 after her verbal argument with a Muslim woman in a fruit field, over a glass used for drinking water, escalated into an allegation of blasphemy against Bibi.
Salman Taseer, a Muslim and the governor of the province of Punjab, was shot dead on Jan. 4, 2011, by his Muslim bodyguard for initiating a clemency petition on behalf of Asia Bibi.
Shabhaz Bhatti, a 42-year-old Catholic who was serving as minister for religious minorities in Pakistan’s federal government, was shot and killed March 2, 2011, for having worked with Taseer seeking clemency for Bibi.
Both Taseer and Bhatti were killed by Islamists who claimed they had blasphemed Allah.
Bibi’s death sentence was upheld by Lahore high court on Oct. 16, leading to renewed international criticism about her case.
Bibi sent a letter last month to Pope Francis, appealing for his prayers on her behalf.
“Pope Francis, I am your daughter, Asia Bibi. I implore you: Pray for me, for my salvation and for my freedom,” the imprisoned Christian woman wrote. “At this point, I can only entrust [myself] to God Almighty, who can do anything for me.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.