Muslim leaders exonerate young Christian from false blasphemy charges
by Shafique Khokhar
An altercation between Muhammad Boota and Asif Masih led to the accusations. The testimony of local landowners and residents end in the accused being released. The words of Chaudhary Khalid Cheema tipped the balance. For the latter, the charges against the Christian man were "repugnant." Christian activist praises the action of local police and authorities.
Gojra (AsiaNews) - A controversial case that could have led to a death sentence or life in prison for a young Christian man accused of blasphemy was settled by Christians and Muslims working together, driven by a desire for the truth and a steadfast will to avoid sectarian violence. For Christian leaders, the outcome represents a major turning point that shows the importance of dialogue, harmony among believers of the two religions and the need to punish abuses committed under the 'black law'. For the leaders of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), now it would be appropriate for the man who launched the false accusations to be forgiven, a gesture that would "bring the two communities closer," NCJP secretary Peter Jacob said.
Everything began on 7 May when Muhammad Boota, 55, with the complicity of Muhammad Shabbir, unfairly accused a 24-year-old Christian Asif Masih of blasphemy. The young man is the son of Gulzar Masih and is from Kathore, a village near Gojra, in Toba Tek Singh District (Punjab), scene of an anti-Christian attack in 2009 that claimed the lives of several people.
After the two Muslims accused Asif of insulting the name of the Prophet Muhammad, police quickly arrested him on blasphemy charges.
In fact, the accusations stem from an altercation between Asif and Muhammad. Muhammad's son, 17-year-old Bilawal Akhter, is a friend of the Christian man. In the evening of 7 May, the father called Asif to get him to send his son home. When the latter refused, Muhammad and seven other people burst into Asif's home where they pushed him and his father around.
After rousing a group of Muslims, he filed a complaint with police who arrested the alleged blasphemer.
However, the intervention of a rich local Muslim landowner, Chaudhary Khalid Cheema, 55, gave the young accused a chance to defend himself.
It turns out that the entire local community, which is mostly Muslim, stood with Asif, coming to his defence before the judges during his trial on 9 May.
At the hearing, the facts showed that Muhammad Boota had twisted the truth and made false accusations, undermining communal harmony and cooperation. Yesterday, the accused was released for lack of evidence.
Gojra's parish priest, Fr Yaqub Yousaf spoke to AsiaNews about the affair. "The blasphemy law has been abused and caused many incidents in Gojra." This time however, "I was touched by the solicitude of Muslim landowners, the Muslim community and the local administration." For the clergyman, they deserve praise and gratitude "for the positive outcome."
For the man whose testimony clinched the affair, Chaudhary Khalid Cheema, "being Muslim is no reason to defend Muhammad Boota because his behaviour towards Asif Masih was repugnant," he told AsiaNews.
"I have no doubts that the young Christian is innocent," he explained. "We are ashamed of what happened in Korian and Gojra in 2009," he added, "because no one has started an impartial investigation. [. . .] We will stand by the Christians for their rights, and will live together with equal respect and dignity."
For NCJP secretary Peter Jacob, the event is a turning point that will lead to better local conflict resolution. This time, inter-faith cooperation "went beyond the law" and contributed to "social peace and coexistence". Surprisingly, he said, the "police and the local administration" showed a change in thinking.
Finally, "Muhammad Boota and Muhammad Shabbir should be forgiven in order to bring the two communities closer," Jacob suggested.
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