By rights, the Pakistani Christians Asif Masih and Amjad Masih should be celebrating. Released from prison last month after their life sentences for blasphemy were overturned by Pakistan supreme court, they are enjoying their first taste of freedom for seven years. But in the increasingly fundamentalist climate, the two feel as imprisoned now as they ever did, forced into hiding for fear of attacks by Muslim extremists.
The two cleaners from Jhang district, 300 miles south of Islamabad, were jailed by a Faisalabad court in 1999 under Pakistan draconian blasphemy laws, having been wrongly accused of burning a copy of the Koran. Because the law can be invoked on the word of just one witness, it is frequently manipulated by Muslims to settle scores or rouse religious tensions.
Asif, 30, and Amjad, 36, who are not related - Masih is a generic term used to describe Christians in Pakistan - said police made the Koran-burning allegations after the pair refused to pay bribe money in 1998. Their first appeal was rejected on May 23, 2003, and they were finally freed last month.
Amjad wife, Kausar, said: "It has been a tough period for my family, but I am afraid the real tough time starts now, as the extremists can attack Amjad or somebody else from the family."
In jail, the two men were kept in solitary confinement for their own safety, following the murder of another blasphemer in a women`s prison in 2003. Meena Munir, a local human rights activist, claimed they were just as much at risk having been released.
"Once a person is charged with blasphemy, he is considered condemned even if he is acquitted," she said. The families of the two men now face poverty, as employment prospects are bleak for anyone remotely associated with an alleged "blasphemer".
Amjad, his wife and their four children are now being looked after by the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust, a charity set up in memory of a clergyman who committed suicide outside a court to protest against the blasphemy laws.
In many areas, they have suffered violence orchestrated against them and their churches. In February, 400 people attacked a church in the southern city of Sukkur after accusations that a Christian had set fire to a Koran. In 2002, Muslim hardliners threw grenades into a church on Christmas Day, killing three girls.
Worsening the situation for indigenous Christians is the perceived link between them and the Western world that is now demonised by extremists.
"Pakistan is becoming a fundamentalist state," Nasir Saeed, the London director for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a Pakistani charity, told The Sunday Telegraph. Pakistan`s National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Roman Catholic human rights body, has criticised the authorities for failing to prosecute Muslim militias, whom it claims have murdered at least 23 alleged blasphemers.
But defending those facing blasphemy charges is dangerous in itself. Joseph Francis, the co-ordinator for CLAAS in Lahore, said he had received death threats from al-Qaeda-linked groups for taking up such cases in the courts.
Although President Pervez Musharraf promised in 1999 to restrict the application of the blasphemy law, he withdrew, under pressure from funda-mentalist groups, settling instead on various rhetorical statements deploring religious intolerance.
In another case, Ranjha Masih was jailed for life for allegedly knocking over a board with Koranic verse. His wife, Rasheeda, said, "We always respect all the prophets of God and would not disrespect religious scripts."
Despite calls for reform, Ajaz-ul-Haq, Pakistan`s religious minister, has insisted that even if 100,000 Christians lost their lives, the blasphemy law would not be repealed.(TELEGRAPH)