Christian lay leader arrested on blasphemy charges

    A 25-year-old Christian is in police custody in Lahore after he shared another person’s anti-religion post on his Facebook page.

    A huge mob converged on Raja Warris’ neighborhood in the Charar area on the night of Dec. 26, threatening to behead the outreach lay leader and set fire to homes unless police arrested him, said the Rev. Ayub Gujjar, vice moderator of the Raiwind Diocese of the Church of Pakistan.

    “The incident took place after Warris shared a post on Facebook on Dec. 22, which was deemed blasphemous by Muslims,” Gujjar said.

    Warris apologised to the Muslims in person, saying he had shared the post for academic understanding between Christians and Muslims and did not mean to offend any Muslims, and the issue appeared to be resolved – temporarily, Gujjar said.

    “On Dec. 26, we were informed by our congregation members in Charar that a huge mob had gathered in the locality on the call of a cleric affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP] and were demanding the beheading of the catechist,” Gujjar said. “Fearing violence, hundreds of Christian residents fled their homes while around 400 anti-riot policemen were deployed in the area to thwart violence.”

    When Gujjar and other local church elders reached the Defence-A Police Station to meet with the assistant superintendent of police, a large mob gathered outside the premises and chanted slogans against Christians, he said. Officers insisted that church leaders hand Warris into their custody to cool tempers.

    “We sought time for negotiation with the protest leaders, but the police said they could not guarantee the safety of our people if the accused was not presented for arrest,” Gujjar said. “We reluctantly agreed to bring Warris but demanded that he be kept at an undisclosed location due to the serious threat to his life.”

    Police on Dec. 27 registered a First Information Report (No. 1122/20) against Warris under Section 295-A and Section 298-A of the blasphemy laws and showed it to the mob leaders, who then called off the siege, Gujjar said.

    Section 298-A provides for up to three years in prison for derogatory remarks about a “holy personage,” and Section 295-A calls for up to 10 years in prison for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outreach religious feelings.”

    Police have relocated Warris, his wife and two children to a safe house for their security, Gujjar said.

    Church leaders have engaged with Muslim clergy in attempts to restore calm and extricate Warris from the case, said Bishop of Raiwind Diocese Azad Marshall.

    “Warris is an educated youth who loves to serve God,” Marshall said. “I was deeply concerned about the situation in Charar, as any wrong action could have resulted in violent riots that could have put the lives of our people at risk. We immediately got in touch with senior government and police officials, which helped in restoring order in the neighborhood, and fortunately no loss of life and property was reported.”

    Marshall said the incident highlights the need for “responsible use” of social media in Pakistan.

    “Christians especially need to be more careful in sharing content, because any faith-based post could be used to instigate violence against the community,” he said. “We need to understand that Islamic religious sentiments run high in our country, therefore it’s important to carefully analyze the content before posting it online.”

    Church leaders have sought the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Religious Harmony, Allama Tahir Ashrafi.

    “When illiterate persons are accused of blasphemy, we give them the benefit of the doubt, because they have no idea of what they have done, but when some educated person posts something that is religiously offensive, then how can any person justify that action?” Ashrafi said. “Although the post shared by Warris, intentionally or unintentionally, was very offensive, I’d say that the law has still been very lenient on him.”

    Ashrafi urged church leaders to raise awareness in their congregations about using social media responsibly so that the lives and property of people do not come under threat.

    In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Accusations are highly inflammatory and have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.

    There are 24 Christians imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, according to rights activists.

    Although successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, little effort has been made to stop the abuses.

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