LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Muslims in Pakistan have told 300 impoverished villagers they must either produce a Christian accused of blasphemy, leave the area, convert to Islam or be killed, sources said.

Imran Masih, a 28-year-old resident of Chak 44 village in Punjab Province’s Mandi Bahauddin District, was accused on April 19 of keeping a “blasphemous” video clip on his cell phone. Area Christians said he is an illiterate man with no knowledge of the Internet.

Tensions flared after a local Islamist outfit issued a Fatwa (Islamic edict) against Masih and sanctioned his killing. Masih, a sweeper at a rural health center in nearby Bosaal, and his family have since fled the village. Some 44 Christian families are now left at the mercy of the 2,000-plus Muslim population, which has imposed a social boycott on the community after police thwarted an attempt to burn down their homes on May 6.

While some details surrounding the blasphemy accusation remain unexplained as Masih and his family were not available for comment, a Christian who represents the villagers told Morning Star News that Masih was accused of possessing a video clip offensive to Islam. Amir Yaqub said that Masih was working at the health center on April 19 when a Muslim pharmacy worker identified only as Bilal arrived.

“According to Masih, he had left his cell phone on a desk for charging the battery, and when he came to the room he saw Bilal and a couple of other men inspecting the device,” Yaqub said. “Masih told me that as soon as they saw him, the three men accused him of possessing a blasphemous video in his phone. The men later pounced on the Christian sweeper and beat him black and blue despite denials that he did not know anything about the video clip.”

Yaqub previously told a local Christian outfit that Masih had handed over his phone to a Muslim coworker, but in two interviews with Morning Star News, Yaqub clarified that he had been misinformed about that. He reiterated that Masih had left his phone unattended on a desk to charge the battery.

The Muslim assailants locked Masih in a room, Yaqub said, and from there Maish contacted his family through a second phone, informing them about the accusation against him.

“The family contacted the local Catholic church committee, and a delegation from the village immediately left for the health center where Masih was being held hostage,” he said, adding that he was part of the team that went to rescue Masih. “We assured the Muslims, including the doctor in-charge there, that no Christian could even think of committing blasphemy against Islam’s prophet, and that Masih, an illiterate man with no knowledge of the Internet, had been wrongly accused by his colleagues of downloading a sacrilegious sermon.”

Yaqub said that during the attack, Masih’s phone was destroyed.

“I am not sure how the cell phone [containing the alleged evidence against Masih] got damaged,” he said. “Some people say that Masih had himself smashed his phone on the floor in a bid to placate the angry Muslims, while some say that a Muslim coworker had thrown it on the floor in a fit of rage.”

Yaqub said the church committee managed to persuade the Muslims that Masih had no ill intentions towards their faith, and that they should pardon him.

“The in-charge of the health center agreed to let Masih continue working there, and the matter was apparently resolved in our eyes,” he said.

But Bilal, the pharmacy worker, approached an unnamed Islamist outfit based in Sargodha seeking a Fatwa against Masih, Yaqub said. The Islamist leaders there reportedly declared that even though Masih had not spoken anything blasphemous, possession of a sacrilegious video in his phone amounted to blasphemy, and that Masih was therefore liable to be killed.

Masih found out about the Fatwa when he went to work the next day, Yaqub said.

“He immediately fled the center and went into hiding, fearing that he might get killed by angry Muslims,” he said.

Bilal and other Islamist elements then reached out to the mosque committee of their village in Chak 44 and informed them about the incident. While Masih’s family, still in the village, was told to produce him before the committee, a local Muslim businessman announced a 1 million rupee (US$9,500) bounty on Masih’s head, dead or alive.

One of the mosque committee members, Riaz Ahmed Dhadhra, had proposed burning down area Christians’ homes if they did not hand Masih over to them, he said.

“They had even filled jerry cans with petrol and were about to launch an attack when someone asked them to first get evidence of Masih’s blasphemy,” Yaqub said. “We came to know that six or seven Muslims led by Dhadhra went to Bosaal the next day to find evidence against Masih, but no person at the center could authenticate the charge and kept passing the buck to each other.”

Nevertheless, the Muslims then concluded that by going into hiding, Masih had shown that he was guilty of blasphemy, he said.

“If he hadn’t escaped, the Muslims would have surely burned him to death,” Yaqub said.

On May 6, Dhadhra summoned a meeting of the mosque committee with committee Chairman Muhammad Tufail Ghumman present, he said. They decided that Muslims of Chak 44 and nearby villages would gather at the mosque after the Friday prayers that day and burn down all Christian homes to avenge the alleged blasphemy.

“Fayyaz Ashraf, a local Muslim who is sympathetic towards the poor Christians, tried to stop the mob from attacking our homes, but he was beaten up and left for unconscious,” Yaqub said. “Ashraf telephoned me from his cell phone and asked us to immediately vacate our houses as the situation was going out of hand. I informed the other Christian families, besides calling the police helpline.”

A large police contingent arrived in the village just in time to prevent the mob from burning down their homes, he said. Some Christian families had already left the village by then, fearing a repeat of attacks on Gojra in 2009 and Lahore’s Joseph Colony three years ago.

Dhadhra is regarded as hostile to Christians even though all of the 40-45 Christian families in the village have been serving area Muslims of as laborers since 1947, when they were first settled there by Christian missionaries.

Dhadhra and Ghumman, the mosque committee’s chairman, declined to comment to Morning Star News in spite of repeated attempts to reach them. Attempts to reach Punjab Minister for Minorities Affairs Tahir Khalil Sindhu regarding the government’s awareness of the crisis were unsuccessful as of this writing.

On details leading up to the cell phone incident, there are conflicting reports. Some claim that Masih had recorded a video of a colleague’s daughter’s wedding on his cell phone on April 16, which somehow led to an inspection of his device. Other reports suggest that Masih was in a relationship with a female Muslim co-worker, prompting other Muslim staff members to take revenge with a false accusation of blasphemy.

Police Doubt Accusation

According to Yaqub, the charge against Masih was first brought to the notice of Iftikhar Jhakkar, Masih’s supervisor at the rural health center.

Jhakkar, a monitoring and evaluation assistant at the center, had told local media that he was there when some of Masih’s colleagues accused the Christian of watching a blasphemous video on his cell phone. When a local media outlet asked if Jhakkar had verified the accusation, he said he had not checked Masih’s cell phone.

Jhakkar reportedly said he had urged his colleagues to not take the matter lightly and to ensure that Masih was punished if he had committed blasphemy.

Inspector Zafar Iqbal, officer in-charge at the local police station, told Morning Star News that an investigation revealed that the accusation against Masih had been cooked up by Jhakkar and another colleague, identified only as Manzoor.

Iqbal said that none of Masih’s colleagues admitted to having seen the alleged video on his cell phone. Each one tried to put the onus of providing evidence against Masih on the other, he said.

“It’s quite clear that no incident of blasphemy has taken place,” he said. “I have refused to register a case against Imran Masih and also warned the local Muslims and the mosque committee of stern legal action if they try to harm the Christians or their homes. I hope there will be no incident of violence in the village because of our intervention.”

The officer had immediately sent a police party to the village when informed about the mob’s plan to burn down Christian homes, he said.

Iqbal said he had no knowledge of the Christians’ claim regarding a social boycott against them.

“I am not aware of any social boycott of the Christians, but I will certainly look into this matter,” he said. “No one can force the Christians out of their homes just because one person is being accused of a crime for which there’s no evidence.”

Yaqub said that, as part of the boycott, no Christian was hired for wheat harvesting this season.

“We get wheat grains as compensation for our hard labor, and it caters to our food needs for the rest of the year,” he said. “Unfortunately, this incident has taken place just when wheat harvesting began in our village, and now the Muslims are punishing us by hiring Muslim laborers from other villages.”

Muslim shopkeepers are also denying Christians basic, everyday items, making their lives even more miserable, he said, and Christians are being pressured to renounce their faith or leave.

“Some local Muslim landowners are eyeing this as an opportunity to force us out of the village so that they can grab our homes,” he said. “We have been living among the Muslims for over 70 years. We work for them as bonded labor, use our hands to remove dung and filth and cultivate their lands, and this is how they repay our years of service – by forcing us out of our village.”