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A Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam was acquitted today by his country's Supreme Court in Islamabad.
International groups monitoring his case, however, warn that Ayub Masih's life still is threatened by militant Muslims. When Masih, 34, was sentenced to death in April 1998 for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad, extremists vowed to kill him, his lawyers and the judge if he was not convicted, according to Jubilee Campaign, a British human rights group that helped support his case.
We thank God for Ayub Masih's acquittal but at the same time we encourage others to pray very much for his safety as the extremists will probably try to harm him," said Jubilee's researcher and parliamentary officer, Wilfred Wong.
Masih has been in prison since his 1996 arrest in Punjab province and remains at Multan Central Jail while authorities process his paperwork.
Others still face charges
At least seven other Pakistani Christians are imprisoned for blasphemy, according to Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern, or ICC. Wong named two who have been sentenced to death, Kingri Masih and Anwar Kenneth.
Last year, at least 40 Muslims, 23 members of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, 10 Christians and two Hindus were charged with blasphemy, according to British-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Blasphemy cases in Pakistan typically drag on for years before a sentence is handed down, says ICC's president, the Rev. Steven Snyder. Appealing the case can take even longer, he said, leading to years of unjust imprisonment.
"Blasphemy prisoners are often beaten by other inmates, and may be denied a blanket, food or medicine," Snyder said.
In June, a 55-year-old Muslim cleric convicted of blasphemy, Mohammed Yousaf Ali, was shot dead in a jail in Lahore as he was being transferred between cell blocks.
Ali's murderer allegedly was another prisoner, Tariq Mota, a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned Sunni militant group believed to have close ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network, according to a June report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Mota is said to have boasted in a statement to police: "I now feel spiritually satisfied because it was my wish to kill him. It is the responsibility of every Muslim to kill these infidels."
Today's Supreme Court decision is "obviously good news for Ayub and for those who care about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan," said Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for U.S.-based Voice of the Martyrs. "However, we want to remind Christians in America and other nations not to give up in their prayers on his behalf."
Attempts were made on Masih's life at least twice during his six years of incarceration, according to the groups that have followed his legal battle. In November 1997, Masih was shot at by the complainant in his case, Sharif Muhammad Akram, outside the court where he was convicted in the Punjab province town of Sahiwal, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
At least four Christians charged with blasphemy have been killed by extremists, including Manzoor Masih, who was shot dead outside the Lahore High Court in 1995, according to CSW.
Masih was convicted on the testimony of a Muslim who claimed that during a private conversation his Christian neighbor slandered Muhammad by making derogatory statements about the founder of Islam and recommending Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses."
After the alleged blasphemy, Masih and his brother were attacked and beaten by a mob of radical Muslims, according to Voice of the Martyrs, then taken to jail. His brother was released shortly afterwards.
Masih's 1998 death sentence, which was upheld by the Lahore High Court in July 2001, provoked the suicide protest of Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Faisalbad. The bishop shot himself May 6, 1998, on the steps of the Sahiwal courthouse. Pakistani Christians interpreted Joseph's death as a protest against the blasphemy law, which can be abused, they argue, because of its vague wording.
Section 295-C of Pakistan's penal code says: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death and shall also be liable to a fine."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has pledged to reform the law, but human-rights groups claim the government has bowed to pressure from conservative Muslim clerics.
International Christian Concern's Snyder gives Musharraf credit, however, for reforming laws to allow Christians to hold independent seats in Pakistan's legislature.
"Musharraf has met with some of our contacts in the country," Snyder told WND. "So compared with previous leaders in Pakistan, he has shown some sensitivity to Christian minorities."
Musharraf's influence was partly responsible for Ayub Masih's release, said Snyder, who added that the panel of three Supreme Court judges who decided his case deserve credit for their courage.
He noted that at least one Pakistani judge has been killed for acquitting a Christian of blasphemy.
Masih's case shows how the law has been manipulated for gain, Snyder said. The Supreme Court judges said today that the complainant, Akram, had used the blasphemy charge to take property that belonged to Masih's family.
The entire Christian population in Masih's village was threatened as a result of the Muslim community's anger over the blasphemy accusation, and many chose to leave, the monitoring groups said.
The Pakistani government says about 97 percent of its 145 million people are Muslim, although Christian leaders claim they represent an estimated 6 percent of the population.