Blasphemy accusation forces hundreds of Christians to flee village

    Dozens of Christian families fled from their homes in a village near Sargodha city after a Christian was accused of blasphemy for sharing a verse from the Bible on Facebook.

    Tensions flared up in the Chak 49 Shumaali village on Friday after 45-year-old Haroon Shahzad shared on his Facebook verses from 1st Corinthians 10: 18-12 in which the Apostle Paul writes:

    “Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

    Though Shahzad’s tweet contained no personal comment related to the Muslim holy festival of Eid Ul Adha, which was celebrated worldwide on June 29-July 1, a Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post and started spreading it in social media groups alleging that Shahzad had disrespected the Abrahamic tradition of offering animal sacrifices.

    “Haroon shared the post on Thursday, a day before Eid Ul Adha. There was no inflammatory comment in it but perhaps the timing was not right. 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 protests,” former lawmaker and Sargodha resident Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said.

    Chaudhry said that he and other local Christian leaders were monitoring the evolving situation since Thursday evening and were in contact with the district administration and police authorities.

    “When we heard that mobs from other villages had started gathering after the Friday prayers, we immediately informed the Sargodha district police officer and he sent a large contingent to protect the 250-300 Christian families living in the affected village.

    “The police reached the village in time and prevented any attack on the Christians or damage to property. 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 said.

    He said that Haroon Shahzad had already gone into hiding on Thursday evening 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 Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. The FIR is unwarranted because Haroon had only shared a biblical verse and had made no personal comment that could be deemed blasphemous or inflammatory,” he said.

    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 up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to 1-year imprisonment and fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

    Chaudhry said that on Friday night the police took two sisters-in-law of Haroon into custody in a bid to pressurize him to surrender, as his six brothers had also 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. The women were finally freed from custody on Sunday night after one of Haroon’s brothers and two other youths presented themselves for detention,” he said.

    Haroon’s youngest brother, Irfan Shahzad told Kross Konnection that he and his brothers decided to flee when they heard the announcements after Friday prayers.

    “When we learned that people from at least 2-3 villages had started gathering, we ran to save our lives. 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,” he said.

    On Monday, Haroon was able to secure pre-arrest bail.

    “Haroon will join the investigation and we hope the court will grant him permanent bail at the next hearing on May 11,” Haroon’s lawyer Aneeqa Maria told Kross Konnection.

    Maria said the police had released Haroon’s brother and the other two youths after they were informed that he would join the investigation.

    “We are hopeful that Haroon will get permanent bail as Section 298 is a bailable offence. He is also eligible for bail on merit in the Section 295-A offence because police infringed Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) which is a mandatory provision for the application of Section 295-A.

    “According to Section 196, only the provincial government and federal agencies can register an FIR under Section 295-A. In Haroon’s case, a private citizen had invoked the section, which is illegal,” she said.

    Maria said she had also moved an application on behalf of Haroon seeking legal action against the complainant Muhammad Imran Ullah under Section 7 of the Anti-Terror Act for endangering the lives of the accused, his family members, and other Christians by instigating the masses through false propaganda of blasphemy.

    According to sources, the blasphemy charge against Haroon stems from a personal grudge harbored by the complainant, Imran Ullah.

    “Haroon worked as a paint contractor and was financially sound. He was opposed to the complainant because Imran had married a Christian girl some time ago and was also behind legal cases on a piece of land allotted by the government for building a church,” Chaudhry, the former lawmaker, said.

    The two-kanal plot was allotted in the name of Haroon’s father Younis Shahzad, who was a member of the local Presbyterian church session, Chaudhry said, adding that the piece of land was precious since the village is in the suburbs of Sargodha city.

    “Because of the land’s value, Imran and some others resorted to repeated court injunctions to stop the Christians from building their church. The stay orders were finally removed last year after a 4-year-long legal battle and the complainant nurtured a grudge due to this,” he said.

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