A court in Pakistan’s Punjab province has granted bail to 40-year-old Christian man Stephen Masih three years after a Muslim neighbor accused him of committing blasphemy due to an argument over a pigeon.
“We welcome the court’s decision to grant bail to Stephen Masih. We urge the court to also clear Masih of all charges," said Tehmina Arora, director of Asia advocacy for ADF International, the legal organization supporting Masih's case. "The many delays to the hearing of Masih’s appeal have already caused him and his family enough suffering."
The accusations date back to March 2019 after an argument between Masih, his family members and some Muslim neighbors regarding a pigeon, according to a statement from ADF International.
After a reported exchange took place about whether a neighbor was trespassing on Masih’s terrace to collect his pigeon, Masih was accused of having “blasphemed” during the altercation, the group said. The Christian man and his family in Sialkot district were subjected to mob violence. Masih was arrested and charged with blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which is punishable by death.
Fr. Mario Rodrigues, priest of the Archdiocese of Karachi, told Fides that he is concerned for Masih's safety following his release because a person's life is "always at risk and in danger" once they are accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Before Masih's arrest, he lived with his older sister and their mother. But after the blasphemy allegation, ADF reports that Masih's family fled after a mob burned down their home.
“The police broke into Stephen’s home and arrested him (in 2019) without investigation, and even beat up his mother leaving her with a fractured leg and arm,” Joseph Jansen, the head of Voice for Justice, told Fides. “Without verifying the authenticity of the accusation, a mob attacked and tortured innocent people. This case is a clear example of abuse of the blasphemy law for personal revenge.”
In August 2021, a court rejected Masih's previous plea for bail, although the Punjab Institute of Mental Health determined he suffers from bipolar disorder and is unfit to stand trial.
The blasphemy laws embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code are frequently misused for personal revenge. It carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness. Dozens of individuals are imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan.
The law is also abused by Islamist extremists to target religious minorities — Christians, Shi’as, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus.
The world’s attention was drawn to Pakistan’s blasphemy law after Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death and served over 10 years in prison before Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her in 2018. Her acquittal drew the ire of radical extremist groups as many protested in the streets and threatened to kill the Supreme Court justices responsible.
In 2014, Christian couple Shehzad and Shamah Masih were burned to death in a brick kiln over false accusations that they had ripped pages from the Quran.
Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan as the eighth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution. The U.S. State Department names Pakistan on its list of "countries of particular concern" that tolerate or engage in egregious violations of religious freedom.