Pakistani Catholic still lives in hiding after blasphemy acquittal two decades ago
IN PAKISTAN, Shafique Masih has been living in hiding for nearly two decades despite his acquittal in a blasphemy case in 2001. Masih was one of the two Christians accused of insulting Islam during protests in Faisalabad, Punjab province, in May,1998, sparked by a death sentence of a Christian under the blasphemy law. Masih works as a welder in a rented shop and lives with his family at a shelter house built by the Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). He is the father of three boys and four daughters. He told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his experiences.
“I used to run a welding shop in a village near Faisalabad. I shared the electric meter with two others, including Majeed, a Muslim who ran a tandoor (clay oven) shop and sold chapattis (local flat bread). He wasn’t paying the bill for three months arguing that I use more electricity. We exchanged heated arguments over the electricity bill a few times.
“I was about to get a commission of 300,000 rupees ($1810) to make about 25 rolling shutters for a market. Getting jealous of the proposed project, Majeed accused me of participating in the ongoing protests against the blasphemy law in Faisalabad and speaking derogatorily about the Prophet Muhammad.
“I was working in the shop on May 31,1998 when a few men gathered in front of the shop. My staff warned me that they were discussing the accusations against me. My acquaintances suggested that I should close the shop and go home to avoid the trouble. At 4:30 pm, the surrounding mosques urged all to turn off radios, tape recorders and TVs and listen to an important announcement. A person has insulted the Holy Prophet, it was proclaimed.
“A mob armed with burning torches and sticks gathered the same evening at my house and threatened to burn it down. Majeed called me out and the mob dragged me to the main crossroad where hundreds from surrounding villages started gathering. I had nowhere to run.
“Fearing for my life, acquaintances locked me in a school outside the village. Soon we heard gunshots as they tried to break open the school gate. A factory owner called the police which arrived at the school in half an hour. To prevent an attack on the police station, I was rushed to Central Jail in Faisalabad the same night.
“Three years in prison were like living in hell. Several times fellow inmates planned to murder me inside the cell. Sometimes my lock was deliberately kept open so that anyone could attack. I was accused in two cases with five and seven-year sentences, respectively. I thank God for my freedom.
“After my release in 2001, I was sheltered by a priest. He catered to me like a son and took care of all the needs of my family especially on feasts like Christmas and Easter. In 2003, we were transferred to this two-room shelter house in a residential neighborhood. We had no electricity nor were there any shops around. The mosquitoes invaded every night.
“Four of my children were born here. The youngest, twins, age 12, help me in the welding shop as I have developed a cataract in the left eye. Due to the pandemic, there is not much business. The house is crumbling now; the wall in the backyard collapsed in monsoon rains last year. Our compound is flooded with drain water. I took out a loan to rebuild the toilet.”
“I thank the NCJP for providing the lawyer, this shelter and the welding equipment. My eldest daughter, 20, was married last year. We regularly attend the Catholic Church around the corner. I play the harmonium for the choir and visit with my friends in a musical instruments repair store. Sometimes I visit my brothers in Bagywal village, but only at night.
“The blasphemy law is misused to target the innocent. If you stay silent, they start suspecting. If you try to answer their allegations, they twist your statements. It must end. Now I only fear for the prospects of my children; all of them are school dropouts.”
Since 2011, ACN has regularly supported the work of the Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). The organization supports and provides legal aid to victims of the blasphemy law.