A Pakistani high court has acquitted three Christians of blasphemy. The acquittal was the first granted to Christians so accused in Pakistan since 1995.

In a ruling issued in January by the Lahore High Court, Hussain Masih, his son Isaac Masih, and Iqbal Sahar Ghouri were cleared of charges that carried a potential death penalty under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The court asked the police to investigate whether the Muslim accuser had fabricated the case against the Christians two years ago.

During the hearing, the chief prosecutor declared that "no direct or circumstantial evidence" could be produced to corroborate complainant Ijaz Ahmed's claims.

Ahmed, a Muslim neighbor to the Masih family in the village of Alipur Chatta, claimed that he had found burned pages of the Qur'an and letters containing derogatory remarks against the prophet of Islam in his yard near a wall separating his house from that of Hussain Masih.

The Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement and representatives of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan began researching the situation after Ahmed filed his case. The two groups found that Ahmed had a running dispute with his Christian neighbors. The Muslim had reportedly ordered Isaac Masih to stop playing hymns on a loudspeaker near the wall between their houses, complaining that his children were learning the words to Christian songs.

Village constable Mohammed Afzal admitted that Ahmed had gathered hundreds of Muslim religious leaders and threatened to set the police station on fire unless officials agreed to register a blasphemy case against the three Christians. Afzal registered the case, saying he did not have a large enough police force to confront the mob.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of the three men. Ghouri, a close friend of Isaac Masih, was jailed for several weeks until the courts granted him bail. Hussain Masih and his son went into hiding.

The father later presented himself before the Additional Sessions Court in December 1998 and was immediately jailed. He did not receive bail until nearly a year later. His son Isaac remained in hiding until the high court's ruling.

More than 50 Pakistani Christians have been victimized since 1987 for trumped-up allegations of insulting Islamic practices.

Human Rights Watch has called the misused blasphemy law a "tool of religious persecution."

Related Elsewhere

The U.S. Department of State reports on human rights and religious freedom detail abuses in the Pakistan, including the Masihs' arrest and trial.

Previous Christianity Today articles about Pakistan include:

U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Criticized | Indian churches reject U.S. inquiry, but Pakistani Christians welcome it. (Oct. 3, 2000)

Pakistan's Christians Demand End to 'Religious Apartheid' at Polls | Election system allows religious minorities to vote only for candidates of their own faith. (Sept. 19, 2000)

Rapes of Christians Put Pakistani Justice on Trial | "Religious apartheid is coming," says human rights leader. (Sept. 12, 2000)

Military Leader Backpeddles on Human Rights Decision (June 12, 2000)

Two Pakistani Christians Sentenced to 35 Years in Prison | Musharraf retracts new blasphemy law policy in wake of protests. (May 23, 2000)

Blasphemy Case Registered Against Young Pakistani Husband | First test of military government's new judicial curb (May 11, 2000)

Churches Welcome Pakistan Promise to Ease Restrictions on Minority Faiths | October coup turns out to be beneficial to Christians as blasphemy laws are overhauled. (May 4, 2000)

Pakistan's Christians 'Not Shocked' by Life Sentence for Former PM | Life has improved, persecution has eased under new leader, say church leaders. (Jan. 15, 2000)

Pakistan's Despised Christians | Despite a Catholic bishop's protest suicide in 1998, Christians hold little hope for repeal of blasphemy law. (April 26, 1999)

Islamic Law Proposal Raises Tensions (Dec. 7, 1998)

Pakistani Bishop's Death Sparks Riots (June 15, 1998)

Muslims Destroy Christian Village | Rumors of a damaged copy of the Qur'an incite riot. (April 7, 1997)

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