World Watch Monitor

A Pakistani Christian and his family have fled their home in the religiously conservative city of Gujrat, after he was accused of committing blasphemy by sending an offensive message via mobile-phone text.

Nadeem James, 23, from the Yaqoobabad area of the city, and his family are on the run after a friend of the family, Yasir Bashir, 30, went to the police on Sunday, 10th July, saying that James had sent him a blasphemous poem, which was against Islam and its prophet, using the WhatsApp texting service.

One of James’s brothers, Faryad, told World Watch Monitor that police then “forcibly took away and beat” two of Nadeem’s sisters-in-law, including one who has an 18-month-old son, in order to pressure them to provide information of James’s whereabouts. However, the police told local newspapers that the two women were being kept in “protective custody” and would be released if any organisation took responsibility for their safety.

The women’s detention has heightened tensions in the area. Several Christians, including all remaining members of the James family, have fled the area for the fear of their lives. Locals told World Watch Monitor that police from several other areas have been brought in to keep the situation under control. BBC Urdu reported that 200 policemen had been deployed.

Faryad James said two clerics - members of the Sunni Tehreek group, known for its rigid stance on blasphemy - went to the police station to lodge an official complaint and are now “demanding Nadeem’s immediate arrest and threatening a backlash if the police fail to arrest him”.

In a First Information Report submitted to police on 10th July, Yasir Bashir wrote: “On 4 July, I received text messages from a cell phone owned by Nadeem Masih*, son of James Masih, of the Christian caste. I saw these messages today, 10 July. The messages are insulting to the Prophet, the orthodox caliphs and other respectable personalities...Take action against Nadeem Masih and end this social vice.”

Parvaiz Masih, a resident of the nearby Father’s Colony, founded by a local Catholic church, said “one person’s irresponsible act has exposed the entire community to peril”.

Faryad James expressed disbelief that a family friend had lodged an accusation against his brother.

“Yasir has been our friend for more than 15 years,” he said. “He worked as a painter with my brother, Shahbaz, and we are unable to understand what exactly took place because we are unaware of the texted messages.

“On Sunday, I was home, but Nadeem had already fled when people started saying that he had sent blasphemous text messages to Yasir. I am unaware if any religious discussion took place between the two, before such messages were texted.

“In the evening, the police came and took our women into custody and beat them in order to pressure the family to reveal Nadeem’s whereabouts. Since then they are in the police station, while we are totally unaware about Nadeem.”

According to BBC Urdu, the police have said that the message shows that a religious argument had been going on between Bashir and James and that the allegedly offensive message was part of the conversation. The police added that they are investigating whether the alleged message was first sent to Nadeem James by someone else, before he passed it on.

In the past two months, there has been a spike in blasphemy cases against Christians. In May, a young Pakistani Christian woman was accused of blasphemy for allegedly using an advertising banner bearing the name of Prophet Muhammad as a floor covering. The accusation, which was later withdrawn, came just a few weeks after another Christian was accused of blasphemy in a village 100 kilometres away.

In June, 10 Christian families fled their village after a man from a Christian community was accused of sending a blasphemous message on Facebook Messenger. Also in June, a court jailed two Pakistani Christians (also from Gujrat) for six years for calling a Christian leader a “prophet”. And in the district of Gujranwala, 50 kilometres from Gujrat, an anti-terrorism court sentenced a school principal to death for blasphemy. The man had initially sought police protection, after alleging he was the victim of blackmail and extortion. Instead, he was charged with blasphemy by the police, after the men he had accused levelled charges against him.

*“Masih,” which stems from “Messiah”, has been used for many years in Pakistan as a term to refer to whole Christian communities.