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Pakistan Releases Christian Prisoner After Seven Years

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By BosNewsLife News Center

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife) -- A Pakistani Christian reportedly spent his first full day in freedom Wednesday, May 31, after more than seven years of imprisonment for allegedly burning the Koran, a crime he says he never committed.

Amjad Masih was detained in the Pakistani town of Jhang on February 5, 1999, on what human rights groups claimed were false charges of burning the Koran, seen as a holy book by Muslims.

"The only witnesses were the police who supposedly saw the incident" and accused him of blasphemy under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, said Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), a leading Christian rights group said in a statement to BosNewsLife.

Although a High Court in eastern Pakistan upheld the sentence on August 7, 2003, Amjad reportedly claimed that police detained him and another Christian prisoner only because they refused to pay bribes.

CENTRAL JAIL

VOMC said it learned Wednesday, May 31, that Masih was released late Tuesday March 30, from the Central Jail in Faisalabad in Punjab province, the third largest city in Pakistan.

"He is now at home but reclusive," VOMC added, citing local sources in the region. "Previous reports indicated that Amjad was suffering from depression during his long incarceration," the organization added.

His release comes just over a month after a headmaster of a Christian school in Pakistan was released after spending five years in prison on "blasphemy" charges, investigators said.

VOMC told BosNewsLife April 12 that Parvez Masih (not related) of the school in the area of the city of Lahore, was released after he was found "not guilty" of blaspheming the Islamic Prophet Mohammed.

MOHAMMED'S WIFE

The organization added that Masih was detained April 1, 2001 "after some of his students asked him about Mohammed's nine-year-old wife Aisha." The headmaster "simply mentioned her name and told them to find more information in the Koran."

He was reportedly accused of violating Law 295C, blaspheming Mohammed as a result of the testimonies of two of the boys. "It is believed that a teacher of a rival high school was involved in an attempt to close the Christian school," added VOMC, which had organized an international letter campaign for his release.

Pakistani officials did not comment on the recent releases, but the country has come under pressure to better protect its Christian minority at a time when advocacy groups say believers are facing severe opposition from militant Islamic groups.

While welcoming the releases of the Christians, VOMC said it remained concerned over the plight of other Christian prisoners in the mainly Muslim Asian nation, amid reports of torture and abuse.

PRISONERS ATTACKED

As an example, VOMC claimed it had learned that on April 7, Christian prisoners at the central jail in Sahiwal, Pakistan, were attacked as they "gathered for prayer and Bible study."

Outside prison, human rights groups claim Pakistani Christians are regularly barred from jobs or face troubles from their employers and co-workers while Christian merchants are often harassed.

"The war in [neighboring] Afghanistan intensified problems, with Pakistani Christians seen as being a part of an attack on Islam," VOMC said.

In addition several churches have been attacked in recent months and years, and at least one Christian, 26-year old Nasir Masih, was reportedly beaten to death while in police custody on what VOMC called "false charges of theft."

CRITICIZED LAW

Adding to the difficulties is a 1998 'Sharia', or Muslim, legislation which includes the criticized law on blaspheming Prophet Mohammed. In addition, Pakistan's North West Frontier Province passed a bill which critics described as the "Talibanization" of Pakistan.

The law sets up a watchdog with the power to reform the society in accordance to "Islamic values," which includes ensuring that such values are observed in public places.

"The law is strongly opposed by the federal government [and] Christians are praying that this law will not be implemented, and that they can move toward more religious freedom" VOMC said.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has pledged to combat Muslim extremism, but Christian and secular human rights groups have suggested that more should be done to ensure the country's Christians feel more safe. Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan's nearly 163-million people, according to official estimates. (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from Pakistan).

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Worthy Christian News » Christian Persecution » Christian Persecution - Asia » Pakistan Releases Christian Prisoner After Seven Years