‘If I run away, they will hurt other Christians’

Cleric withdraws blasphemy allegation in Gujrat after woman asserts innocence and declines to flee

‘If I run away, they will hurt other Christians’
A young Christian woman from a village in Gujrat took a brave stance after she was accused of blasphemy, refusing to flee from her home because she did not want the people of her neighborhood to bear the brunt. And perhaps for the first time, a complainant in a blasphemy case withdrew his application to the police, saying such an occurrence could not be verified.

“If I had run away, what would have happened to my Christian neighbors and their houses?” said 23-year-old Sonia Gill. An angry mob of 70 men had gathered outside her house in Gujrat’s Christian Town neighborhood on May 16, about 100 kilometers from the village in Mandi Bahauddin where many Christians fled their homes after a blasphemy allegation only two weeks prior.  The mob was led by Khubaib Jalali, a cleric at the local mosque. Hubaib is originally a resident of Mandi Bahauddin. At least 150 Christian families live in the Christian Town, which has three churches.

Earlier that morning, Sonia’s 30-year-old neighbor Sharjila Komal, known by her nickname Poma, had accused her of blasphemy, for using a salvaged advertising banner as a sheet on the floor for dining.
"They saw the banners, but were not satisfied"

The two families have a history. “About three years ago, her sister-in-law had eloped with my cousin Khalid Masih. A police case was registered against Khalid, but the matter was settled after the woman returned,” according to Sonia.

That morning, Poma – who is a tailor – came to Sonia’s house to tell them she had stitched her niece’s uniform. “When she was leaving, she saw a salvaged advertisement banner spread on the floor which had pictures of bearded politicians. My brother Shaukat Gill has an interest in politics, and these banners had been used in November last year during the local elections. Now we use them as dining sheets on the floor.”

At about 8pm that evening, about 70 people gathered outside Sonia’s house, demanding that the banner be handed over to them. “I invited 18 of their elders inside so that they could see that the banner bore no sacred inscriptions,” Shaukat Gill told me. “They saw the banners, but were not satisfied. They said they would consult amongst themselves in the nearby mosque before making a decision.”

They left for the local Gulzar-e-Habib Mosque, and Shaukat Gill made a call to the emergency police hotline. “I feared that the mob would return and may attack us,” said Shaukat Gill, who is a driver in Gujrat’s Town Municipal Administration. “The police arrived soon and brought the situation under control. We showed them the banners once again, in the presence of the police.”

Regardless, the cleric submitted an application in the Lorry Adda Police Station against Shaukat Gill and Sonia Gill, and sought the registration of a first information report under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code.

The next morning, the situation was tense. “Several Christians and Muslims suggested that I should flee the place, but I declined. If I would flee, the protestors would hurt other Christians and destroy their property,” Sonia said. “Whatever they want to do, they should do it to me and not to others.”

Shaukat Gill said his friends Mushtaq Butt and Allah Rakha Sahotra worked with the local community to resolve the misunderstanding. Mushtaq took an oath that there had been no blasphemy. “The next day, Butt told me that the matter had been resolved,” said Shaukat Gill.

An English newspaper reported that Ms Sonia Gill had “begged pardon”. But the Station House Officer of police, Ghulam Abbas Dogar, denied that. “Elders of the area assured us that no such incident had taken place. The situation is under control and the family is living peacefully in their home.”

The cleric, Khubaib Jalali, withdrew his complaint. “I have investigated the matter,” he said in a new application. “No occurrence of blasphemy could be verified. As of now, I do not seek any legal action on my application.”

Punjab parliamentarian Mary Gill, who met Sonia Gill and Christian families of the area, told me she had been alerted by rights activist Khalid Shahzad, after which she spoke to District Police Officer Rai Zameerul Haq. “The police have played a crucial role in restoring law and order in the two incidents at Mandi Bahauddin and Gujrat. It is very encouraging that at least in this instance, the suspect did not have to flee.”

She said she had also spoken to the chief minister. “The matter was discussed in a high powered cabinet meeting on May 19. The meeting was attended by Home Secretary Col(r) Azam Suleman Khan, Punjab Inspector General Mushtaq Sukhera, district police officers and district coordination officers of Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin, officers of law and order agencies, and two ministers. I suggested establishing a minorities protection cell, which could be quickly alerted about such incidents, and law enforcement agencies could be mobilized to deal with the situation,” Mary Gill said. “I am happy that the cabinet meeting agreed to set up such a cell.”

Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist Saiful Malook believes a criminal case should have been lodged against those who incited violence against Christians. In a judgment on June 19, 2014, the Supreme Court had said that “in all cases of violation of any of the rights guaranteed under the law, or desecration of the places of worship of minorities, the concerned Law Enforcing Agencies should promptly take action - including the registration of criminal cases against the delinquents.” Articles 189 and 190 of the Constitution make it binding on all institutions of Pakistan to obey the Supreme Court’s rulings, says Saiful Malook.