LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Police in Pakistan charged a Christian with blasphemy on Friday (June 30) after he posted Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in a village near Sargodha city to flee their homes.
Tensions flared in Chak 49 Shumaali village, Punjab Province, after 45-year-old Haroon Shahzad on Thursday (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. Eid al-Adha commemorates God providing a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son. In the passage posted from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul states that pagan sacrifices are offered to demons.
Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, said Sargodha resident Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a Christian and former lawmaker.
“The post began circulating in Muslim circles on Thursday, but the situation became tense after the Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers asking people to gather for a protest,” Chaudhry told Morning Star News.
Chaudhry said that he and other local Christian leaders began monitoring tensions on Thursday evening (June 29) and were in contact with the district administration and police authorities. When they heard that mobs from other villages had begun gathering after the mosque announcements, they informed Sargodha District police, which sent a large contingent to protect the 250-300 Christian families in the village, he said.
“The police reached the village in time and prevented any attack on the Christians or damage to property,” Chaudhry said. “However, the police presence did not deter the mobs from raising inflammatory slogans. Fearing that the situation could get out of hand, a majority of the Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.”
Chaudhry, an attorney and head of his own political party, said that Shahzad went into hiding on Thursday evening (June 29) along with his wife and six children.
“The police registered a case against Haroon on Friday under Sections 295-A and 298, under the pressure of the mobs backed by the extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP],” he said. “The FIR [First Information Report] is unwarranted, because Haroon had only shared a biblical verse and had made no personal comment that could be deemed blasphemous or inflammatory.”
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.
Chaudhry said that on Friday night police took two sisters-in-law of Shahzad into custody in an effort to pressure him to surrender himself. Shahzad’s six brothers also had gone underground, fearing for their lives.
“The two women were left behind to take care of their elderly parents-in-law, both of whom are paralytic and could not leave with their sons,” Chaudhry said. “After much effort, the women were finally freed from custody on Sunday night [July 2] after one of Haroon’s brothers and two other youths presented themselves for detention.”
Shahzad’s youngest brother, Irfan Shahzad, spoke to Morning Star News from an undisclosed location.
“Haroon deleted the post when we heard that some people were using it to stoke religious sentiments in the village,” he said. “Some friends later advised him to leave the village in case the situation worsened, so he took his family and left.”
Irfan Shahzad said that he and his other brothers decided to go into hiding when they heard the mosque announcements after Friday prayers.
“When we learned that people from at least two or three villages had started gathering, we ran to save our lives,” he told Morning Star News. “We couldn’t take our parents along because of their medical condition, so my two sisters-in-law volunteered to stay back and look after their needs. It’s a shame that the police detained them despite knowing that they have infant children.”
Haroon Shahzad on Monday [July 3] was able to secure pre-arrest bail through the efforts of attorney Aneeqa Maria of The Voice Society. She said Shahzad would cooperate with the investigation, but police on Tuesday (July 4) took him into “protective custody” despite the securing of the pre-arrest bail.
Maria said she hoped to obtain permanent bail for Shahzad at the next hearing on May 11.
“We are very hopeful that Haroon will get permanent bail, as Section 298 is a bailable offense,” Maria said.
She said he is also eligible for bail on merit, as a private citizen had illegally invoked Section 295-A, whereas only the provincial government and federal agencies can register an FIR under Section 295-A, according to Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).
Maria said she also had filed an application on behalf of Shahzad seeking legal action against the complainant, Muhammad Imran Ullah, under Section 7 of the Anti-Terror Act for allegedly endangering the lives of the accused, his family members, and other Christians by instigating the masses through false propaganda of blasphemy.
She said police had released his brother and the other two youths after his decision to cooperate with the investigation.
The blasphemy charge against Shahzad stems from personal grudges against him by the complainant, Ullah, sources said. Chaudhry said Ullah had engaged in legal battles with Shahzad over a piece of land allotted by the government for constructing a church building.
The two-kanal (one kanal equals one-eighth of an acre) plot was allotted in the name of Shahzad’s father, Younis Shahzad, who was a member of the local Presbyterian church, Chaudhry said, adding that the land was prized since the village is in the suburbs of Sargodha.
“Because of the land’s value, Imran and some others resorted to repeated court injunctions to stop the Christians from building their church,” he said. “The stay orders were finally removed last year after a four-year legal battle, and the complainant nurtured a grudge due to this.”
Irfan Shahzad corroborated Chaudhry’s information, saying there were many Presbyterian families in the village, and they did not have a church building for worship.
“My father obtained the allotment from the deputy commissioner by following the legal process,” he said. “Those opposed to this allotment should have questioned the officer, but they started harassing us through cases.”
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.
Chaudhry expressed fears of an escalation in area tensions as TLP workers were sharing Shahzad’s photo on social media, declaring him a blasphemer deserving punishment.
The biblical passage from 1 Corinthians that Shahzad posted reads, “Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
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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