|Tuesday, 20 May 2008|
|By Jawad Mazhar, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Pakistan|
Christian doctor were in hiding Tuesday, May 20, after a mob attacked their house in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where he was detained on charges of blasphemy against Islam, which could carry the death penalty.
Dr. Robin Sardar, 55, who denied the charges, was arrested in Punjab’s district of Hafizabad under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation and transferred to Punjab’s Gujranwala Central Jail on May 4, local residents told BosNewsLife.
His troubles began six months ago when the doctor urged a Muslim businessman to remove his illegally placed shop stall in front of his clinique. The Muslim protested and filed a case against Dr. Sardar, allegedly falsely accusing him of “humiliating Prophet Muhammad.”
When local Muslims heard of the charges they used a loudspeaker to demand the killing of Dr. Sardar, prompting an angry crowd to gather near the family home, armed with sticks and kerosene, his family said.
Witnesses also claimed that “thousands” of Muslims assembled and surrounded the residence and clinic, with some hurling stones and bricks. “There was a lot of danger and infuriated people surrounding us and they were chanting anti-Christianity slogans,” his wife, Veenas, told BosNewsLife in an interview.
“I thought I was going to be killed,” said Veenas, who remains at an undisclosed location with her five daughters and one son amid fears of more violence. Neighbors allegedly told her that members of local Islamist groups threatened to kill her husband if he is acquitted.
One of the daughters, Amelia, a college student, recalled that she got “so much scared” during the mob attack that she started “reciting the holy Bible and prayed to God to protect the family and my father.” Special police forces apparently rescued the family and doctor, their heads covered with scarves.
The mob, many holding clubs, reportedly even attempted to reach the police station, pelting them with stones, bricks and shards of glass. “I am very much scared and can’t concentrate on my studies,” following the incident, “and my final exams approaching,” said Dr. Sardar’s studying son in a phone conversation with BosNewsLife, on condition his name is not revealed.
The latest tensions have underscored religious divisions in the area, where some 97 percent of the population is Muslim while Christians comprise less than three percent, according to estimates.
Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian legislator and head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) advocacy group, said he still hopes a “fair trial” will be possible and stressed his group would assist the jailed doctor, free-of-charge.
An APMA delegation already visited Dr. Sardar in prison where they prayed with him, added Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, one of the participants and a legislator in the Punjab Assembly. “Dr Sardar is in good health and strong faith,” he said.
Bhatti told BosNewsLife that the troubles surrounding the doctor highlight the need for urgent changes in Pakistan’s dreaded article 295-c of the penal code. “I am struggling since 1985 for the abolishment of these draconian blasphemy laws, which are hovering like an angel of death over the heads of all the Pakistani minorities,” he said.
Bhatti made clear he would resign from Pakistan’s national parliament if he fails to fulfill his promise to tackle the legislation, that resulted in arrests of Christians across the country in recent years.
“Innocent people live entire life like refugees…hiding here and there,” because of the blasphemy law, he noted. He said that the present definition of the word “blasphemy” is “open-ended and vague.”
Ferhan Mazher, who heads rights and advocacy group Rays of Development Organization (ROD) agreed. “I am extremely traumatized to hear this sad news about the jailed doctor.” He said ROD had appealed to the Pakistani government “to look into the matter and ensure that justice is served to the victims of this blasphemy case.”