November 29, 2023 (Morning Star News)
A court in Pakistan this month granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.
Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on November 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.
Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on November 6. Still, the decision and his release on November 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.
Shahzad told Morning Star News from an undisclosed location that the false accusation had forever changed his family’s lives.
Since the police arrested me based on this false accusation and under mob pressure, Shahzad told Morning Star News, “My family has been on the run.” “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children can also not attend school as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”
Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.
“All of this is because the complainant, Imran Ladhar, who has widely shared my photo on social media, declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and inciting them against me and my family. He’s trying to ensure we can never leave the village.”
Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and he said they cannot leave the village in the foreseeable future.
“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They live at a relative’s house while I take refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will end.”
The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of the Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it to construct a church building. Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all after a four-year legal battle.
“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families in the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”
Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.
“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [the Feast of the Sacrifice], but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “When I learned that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”
According to Shahzad, the village elders were already under Ladhar’s influence and would not listen to him.
“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.
Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.
Similar to Other Cases
Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.
“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons, and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.
She said that the case filed against Shahzad was a gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.
Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.
“The social stigma attached to a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.
The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also stated that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that social media was sinful, according to Maria.
Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to investigate further, she said.
Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29, posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.
A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups, and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.
Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.
Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.
To restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” It is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years, a fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most challenging places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.