Pakistan: Desperate plea for Christian sentenced to death

Bishop Samson Shukardin blessing children. Community from the hostel for the local school from the Kutchi Kholi ethnic group, belonging to St John the Baptist parish.

Monsignor Samson Shurkardin, bishop of Hyderabad and president of the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, lashed out at a court for handing down a death sentence against a Christian found guilty of blasphemy in connection with one of the worst atrocities against minorities in the history of the country.

The Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court found Ehsan Shan guilty of blasphemy for allegedly sharing content on social media considered “insulting to Islam and its prophet.” Bishop Samson Shukardin, bishop of Hyderabad and president of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan, described the sentence handed down in the case of Ehsan Shan as “very painful.”

The young man in his early 20s, from Sahiwal, was not accused of desecrating the Koran, but of publishing a damaged image of the sacred text. Under numerous articles of the Pakistani Penal Code, Shan was sentenced to 22 years of “rigorous imprisonment” and a fine of 1 million Pakistani rupees (approximately 3,300 euros). News of the desecrated writing sparked a day of violence against Christians in Jaranwala, Punjab province, last August, where more than 25 churches were burned and more than 80 Christian homes looted.

In an interview with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Shukardin, who is also president of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church, declared: “This decision is very painful for us. Many people feel disappointed.

Father Khalid Rashid, NCJP director for the diocese of Faisalabad, also spoke to ACN: “[Mr Shan] shared the image with one person, but the image was equally shared by thousands and thousands of people, including officials like members of the police and the government, he said. [Mr Shan] is being charged. He finds himself in the spotlight. We condemn this verdict. He is innocent. He belongs to a very poor family and does not have a high cultural level. That’s why sometimes people don’t understand these things; he had no idea that sharing this content would be considered offensive. During those days [after the Jaranwala atrocity last August] everyone shared the news.

Father Rashid said the Sahiwal anti-terrorism court was pressured to issue a guilty verdict: “This ruling was given because of terrorists, extremists and other fundamental groups who threatened the judge and that is why he gave this kind of sentence.”

The priest commented that the court rushed the decision, maintaining that it was a sign of undue pressure. Father Rashid says he and the lawyers, with whom he works closely, will appeal the case to the Lahore High Court.

The Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court ruling against Shan came amid clearly worsening persecution against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. The mass burning of churches in the Jaranwala district in August 2023 sparked threats of violence against Christians in the Punjabi city of Sargodha, where a mob of thousands of people also went on a rampage last May in response to an accusation of blasphemy. . They lynched Nazir Gill Masih, a 73-year-old Sargodha man, who later died from his injuries. By then, the terrified Christians of Sargodha had fled the city en masse.

“Minorities are suffering more and more. Minorities are afraid and do not feel comfortable. They are afraid to speak in public,” said Bishop Shukardin.

Victims of Jaranwala – burnt houses and furniture on the street – the photo was taken by a sister of the congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul from the dioces Islamabad-Rawalpindi. They also help the vicitms of the attack.
UP to 15 church buildings have been attacked and hundreds of Christian homes destroyed after extremists went on the rampage. The incident follows an accusation of blasphemy against a Christian cleaner accused of desecrating the Qur’an and insulting the Prophet of Islam.
Mass exodus as mob burns churches and homes in Jaranwala – Pakistan, August 2023

Last month, two Muslims were also shot dead in the Punjabi district of Mandi Bahauddin. It was claimed that those responsible belonged to Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a radical religious and political group linked to the violence in Jaranwala and Sargodha. Bishop Shukardin explains that Muslims are also accused of blasphemy, but what makes such accusations much worse for Christians is that when they are accused, it is not just individuals who are attacked, but their families and entire communities. The bishop also stressed that, unlike the case brought against Shan, there have been no convictions against those involved in the attacks against Christians in Sargodha and Jaranwala.

Lawyer Akmal Bhatti, president of the Minority Alliance, has stated that only a dozen of the 135 people booked by the authorities in connection with the Jaranwala atrocity are on trial.

“One of our Christians is given a death sentence that is unjust, and yet nothing has happened to the others accused of crimes against churches and Christian homes. Instead, these people are slowly being released,” says Bishop Shukardin. Furthermore, Father Khalid Rashid called on the international community to appeal for justice: “Large international NGOs and human rights organizations must speak out and say something against this decision. This would have a great impact on the government.”