For the first time ever, Pakistan's Supreme Court will decide whether a Christian on death row should be executed according to the country's blasphemy laws, which ban derogatory comments about Muhammad. International pressure could save the unduly condemned man's life and prevent other such spurious cases, rights advocates say.

"This is very much a test case that will set a precedent for all future blasphemy cases," says Mervyn Thomas, chief executive for London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Ayub Masih, 35, has been suffering inhumane conditions, including torture, for nearly five years. In a case already influenced by fundamentalist Muslim mobs, rights advocates fear heightened Islamic militance wrought by the U.S. "war on terrorism" could reduce Masih's chances of fair judicial review.

Masih's ordeal began in 1996 when, after a local meeting over a land dispute that ended in a mob attacking him, a young Muslim neighbor accused him of saying, "If you want to know the truth about Islam, read Salman Rushdie."

Reliable local sources say the accusation against Masih was concocted to force 15 Christian families to drop a local land dispute, according to CSW. Islamic fundamentalists applied intense pressure on the courts to badger them into condemning Masih, Thomas says.

"The extremists threatened to kill Ayub and his lawyers if he were acquitted," Thomas says, noting that the complainant shot at Ayub inside the Sahiwal Sessions Court on November 6, 1997.

At least six other Christians are jailed under Pakistan's blasphemy law, though authorities assert that of 102 blasphemy cases, 69 charge Muslims. Among them is Younus Sheikh, a Muslim homeopathic doctor and college lecturer, on trial for answers he gave to his students suggesting, according to news reports, that Muhammad did not follow certain Muslim practices before he founded Islam.

Human Rights Watch has referred to Pakistan's blasphemy law as a "tool of religious persecution." Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, declared in April 2000 that his regime would stop misusing the blasphemy law and ordered procedural reform. After protest rallies led by Muslim clerics, however, he backed down.

"It is in President Musharraf's interest to curb the fundamentalists, because they threaten to tear Pakistan apart," Thomas says. "But Musharraf will need support from international interests to stand up against them."

While the government has not imposed Shari'ah law, the Pakistani Constitution requires all senior officials to swear an oath to preserve the country's "Islamic ideology." Muslims make up an estimated 96 percent of the population, with Christians composing 2 percent.

Article continues below

Should Masih's appeal to the Supreme Court fail, his only recourse would be a presidential pardon—though Pakistani mosques teach that those who protect "blasphemers" are equally deserving of death.

Suggested action

As the Supreme Court weighs Masih's appeal, Christians in the United States should "keep the pot boiling" to give the case a high international profile, Thomas says.
  • Besides writing letters to editors of newspapers and other periodicals, Christians should write polite letters directly to Pakistani officials urging repeal of the blasphemy law and Masih's immediate release:

    General Pervez Musharraf
    President, Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Islamabad, Pakistan
    fax: 92.51.921.1018

    Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
    Ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S.A.
    2315 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.
    Washington, D.C. 20008
    fax: 202.387.0484

  • Pray for Masih's health and spirit; for his final appeal to the Supreme Court; for his acquittal and release; and for his subsequent safety and that of his family and lawyer.

Related Elsewhere:

See Christianity Today's October article, "Condemned Prisoner Appeals for Help."

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has a special page on Ayub Masih's story.

In 1998, Anglican Communion News Service issued a press release on Masih's sentence with background on the blasphemy law.

Some international religious freedom observers worry that cases like Masih's may be forgotten by policy makers in the War on Terrorism.

Articles and requests for action from Christian organizations on Masih's plight include:

Demand the overturning of death sentences in blasphemy cases — Women Living Under Muslim Laws (Sept. 10, 2001)

Ayub Masih's Final Court Hope Spotlights Blasphemy Law — World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) Religious Liberty Prayer List (Aug. 21, 2001)

Ayub Masih's death penalty appeal denied in Pakistan — Voice of the Martyrs (Aug. 2, 2001)

Death sentence upheld against Pakistani Christian — Jubilee Campaign (July 26, 2001)

Despairing Pakistani Church Leader Commits Suicide — Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples (May 6, 1998)

Death Sentence Passed on a Christian Accused of Blasphemy — Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples (May 5, 1998)

Ayub Masih sentenced to death in Pakistan — Jubilee Campaign (April 28, 1998)
Article continues below

Related Christianity Today articles on persecution and violence in Pakistan include:

Radical Muslims Massacre 17 Protestants | Six masked gunmen spray bullets into a Church of Pakistan Sunday service. (Oct. 30, 2001)
Christians Fear Muslim Backlash | Anti-Christian sentiments in Pakistan run high, culminate in protests and church shooting. (Oct. 30, 2001)
'Our Fears Have Come True' Says Pakistani Bishop After Massacre in Church | At least sixteen parishioners killed after gunmen storm a Sunday service. (Oct. 29, 2001)

For more articles, see Christianity Today'spersecution and world report sections.

See previous Christianity Today's "Bearing the Cross" articles on persecution in countries such as Laos, China, Indonesia, Sudan, and North Korea.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.