A Pakistani Christian has been sentenced to death for “blasphemy” after reportedly describing Jesus Christ as the only true prophet.
Ashfaq Masih, 34, a motorcycle repair mechanic, was accused of “blasphemy” in June 2017 by a Muslim customer. He was arrested shortly afterwards and has remained in prison since then.
The judgment was announced by the Court of Session in Lahore on 4 July.
The accusation followed a dispute in which the customer, Muhammad Irfan, refused to pay for the repair of his motorbike on the grounds of his Muslim faith.
Ashfaq insisted on payment as agreed, after which Irfan accused him of “blasphemy”, alleging that he described Jesus Christ as the only true prophet.
Two other Muslim men then filed a first information report to the police under Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) section 295-C. This section relates to “defiling the name” of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, which carries a mandatory death penalty.
“I am innocent,” Ashfaq protested in court. “The case against me is baseless, false and frivolous and framed against me just to destroy my business.”
Ashfaq’s brother Mehmood was “stunned” when he received a copy of the judgment against Ashfaq on the morning of 4 July. “I hardly gathered myself and came out of the courtroom and started crying as it was the end of the world for me,” he said.
The “blasphemy” laws in Pakistan are often used to make false accusations in order to settle personal grudges.
Christians are especially vulnerable, as simply stating their beliefs can be construed as “blasphemy” and the lower courts usually favour the testimony of Muslims, in accordance with sharia (Islamic law). Judges are often reluctant to acquit those accused of “blasphemy” for fear of reprisals.
“Blasphemy” laws have existed in the region since 1927 and were incorporated into Pakistan’s Penal Code at the country’s founding in 1947. The laws were strengthened under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq (in office 1978-88) to include mandatory life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran (1982) and to allow the death sentence for defiling the name of Muhammad (1986). A subsequent decision by Pakistan's Supreme Court making the death sentence for “blasphemy” against Muhammad mandatory came into effect in 1991.
On 8 June the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentence of two Christian brothers Qasir and Amoon Ayub for alleged blasphemy.