By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
SAHIWAL, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A young Christian man who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Pakistan on charges of “blasphemy against Islam” has appealed for prayers, ahead of the first hearing in his appeal case against the ruling.
Sajjad Masih Gill, 31, spent four years behind bars in Pakistan’s Punjab province on what he views as false accusations.
He was sentenced after Malik Muhammad Tariq Saleem, a Muslim resident in the provincial town of Gojra, said he received “blasphemous text messages” about Islam and its prophet Mohammed on his mobile phone on December 18, 2011, according to reports seen by BosNewsLife.
The next day police detained Gill and he was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined some $2000 in local currency on July 13, 2013.
Christians with close knowledge about the case claim that Gill, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, is an “innocent victim”. They say a Pakistani Christian girl’s phone was apparently misused by her jealous husband to send the controversial messages.
The girl, publicly identified as Rome Ilyas, was reportedly in love with Gill but forced by her parents to marry someone else in Britain.
Her husband, named in Catholic media as Donald Bhatti, allegedly used her phone to distribute the blasphemous messages “out of jealousy”. Investigators blamed Gill for the action, amid pressure from outraged Muslim leaders, trial observers said.
“I am totally innocent in this case and I do not know why I was involved in the blasphemy case,” Gill explained in comments obtained by BosNewsLife ahead of his December 7 appeal hearing. “But I believe in God that He should provide me justice,” he stressed, adding that his family had also been in suffering for four years.
Gill made the recorded remarks during a meeting in Central Punjab’s ‘Central Jail Sahiwal’ with family members, rights activists and a pastor. “I pray day and night for my son, because I know he is not guilty,” added his mother Bashiran Bibi, a widow.
One of his lawyers, Sardar Mushtaq Gill, who is not related to the suspect, told BosNewsLife that the jailed Christian man had requested prayers for his acquittal and for his family’s safety. “He keeps his faith while being in prison in spite of being innocent”.
The case has underscored concerns about Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation that critics say has been misused to jail innocent Christians and others. Christians have been holding rallies in several areas of Pakistan against the law and to demand the release of the Christian man and other believers.
Sardar Mushtaq Gill, who leads the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD), a Punjab-based legal aid and advocacy group, said his organization supports the accused Christian and family members.
“The chances of Sajjad’s acquittal are greater because there are a number of discrepancies and contradictions between the positions of the witnesses of the blasphemy case,” he told BosNewsLife.
While the case continues, his family has been forced into hiding. “We are attacked ,beaten and got death threats” from unidentified people, said the jailed Christian’s brother Sarfraz Masih Gill, who is also appointed as an attorney in the upcoming appeal case.
“We can not stay in one place for very long and live in hiding without disclosing the exact residence,” he added in a statement to BosNewsLife.
“The children can not settle down and study. It is not normal to be constantly living in fear of attacks,” he said. “It is our request and we urge the international community to speak up for him.”
The blasphemy law has “ruined” the family and “many others”, the brother explained, adding that the Pakistani government should repeal the legislation. “The whole Christian community has to suffer if a Christian is accused of blasphemy,” he said, referring to violence against churches and individual believers.
Lawyer Gill complained that a “common mentality in the Pakistani Muslim community is that Christians are “infidels”. If a Christian is accused of blasphemy, he bsaid, “there is no need to investigate… because Christians do not have faith in Islamic creed. They are considered as blasphemers in the eyes of the Pakistani Muslim community.”
He said the blasphemy legislation is a key reason for “intolerance towards other faiths in Pakistan and it damages the cause of interfaith harmony.” Two prominent politicians have been killed by Islamists for opposing the blasphemy law and demanding more rights for Christians and other minorities: In 2011 Islamic gunmen shot and killed Pakistan’s Christian Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, and earlier that year Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his security guards.
Christians comprise some three percent of Pakistan’s nearly 200 million people who are mainly Muslims, according to official estimates.