Ayub Masih, a Pakistani Christian with a full black beard, disheveled hair, and dingy blue prison clothes, wept as he embraced his Christian visitor at the Central Jail in Multan in August.

A judge sentenced Masih in 1998 to death by hanging for violating Pakistan's blasphemy law, which bans defamatory comments about Islam or its founder.

Muhammad Akram, a young Muslim in the Punjabi village of Arifwala, accused Masih, his neighbor, of blasphemy for urging Akram to read Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses. Many Muslims consider the book blasphemous.

All legal efforts to overturn Masih's conviction have failed. Masih filed a last-chance appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court on August 22.

"The blasphemy case against me is false, baseless, and concocted," Masih told International Christian Concern (ICC), an interdenominational American organization that helps persecuted Christians worldwide. "I am tortured and forced by Muslim inmates to convert to Islam, but I refuse to obey them. The behavior of the jail authorities and Muslim inmates is inhumane. I am not getting proper food and [am] living in a small cell."

Amnesty International (AI) calls Masih a prisoner of conscience and says the blasphemy law should be abolished. "The blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a handy tool to silence debate and dissent," ai says. "They are also used to detain people when the real motivation includes land issues or professional rivalry."

Steve Snyder, president of ICC, told Christianity Today, "Pakistan's blasphemy laws are used as a sword by Muslims who wish to settle grudges against Christians."

World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Commission is calling for prayer and for political leaders to exert their influence on Masih's behalf. Jubilee Campaign, a British human rights group, is mobilizing members of Parliament on Masih's behalf.

Ayub Masih's tangle with Pakistan's infamous 15-year-old blasphemy law began during a 1996 community meeting he attended to defend his parents' property. Shortly after the meeting, Masih was beaten by a mob, arrested, and charged with blasphemy.

In May 1998, the Catholic archbishop of Faisalabad, John Joseph, stunned his followers by committing suicide to protest Masih's death sentence (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 18).

Pakistan's supreme court is scheduled to resume its sessions this month, according to ICC, and to set a date for the case. Pakistani lawyers and justices are reluctant to give swift answers in blasphemy cases. As in most court cases involving Christians, Masih's hearings have been packed with Muslim extremists shouting death threats. In 1997, a Pakistani judge was killed for acquitting two Christians.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today covered the 1998 suicide of Catholic Archbishop John Joseph in response to Masih's death sentence.

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)

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.