“A mentally ill Pakistani Christian man has been charged with blasphemy,” the Pakistan Christian Post reported a few days ago.
Stephen Masih was arrested after Muhammad Rafiq and Muhammad Imran told Muhammad Mudassar—a renowned hafiz, one who has memorized the entire Koran—that the Christian “had made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”
Stephen, 38, is unmarried and lives with his mother and sister. After contracting typhoid fever as a child, and receiving little medical attention due to his family’s impoverishment, the family noticed changes in his behavior; he was eventually taken to a “doctor [who] declared him mentally disabled.”
On March 10, Stephen got into a loud quarrel with his mother and sister. A female Muslim neighbor got involved, at which point “Stephen started arguing with her as he was out of his senses.” Verbal quarrels with other Muslim neighbors escalated and before long “a few Muslim men … pulled Stephen out of his house and started beating him brutally, gradually joined by others.” Police eventually arrived, only to arrest the mentally unstable Christian, on the testimony of local cleric, Muhammad Mudassar.
Afterward, his sister Alia “went to the police station. She says her brother only shouted and used abusive language against the local ladies but did not utter any derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but the police didn’t believe her.”
If convicted, Stephen could face the death penalty. According to Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Stephen Masih’s unfortunate situation is hardly unprecedented. A number of mentally disabled Christians have been beat, imprisoned, and sentenced in Pakistan, often in accordance with Section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code: “Whoever wilfully [sic] defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”
A few examples in reverse chronological order follow:
September, 2018: A court sentenced Yaqoob Bashir, 26, a mentally disabled Christian, to life in prison for allegedly burning a booklet containing Koran verses back in June 2015. He was being treated at a mental health facility prior to the blasphemy accusation and subsequent incarceration. “It’s unbearable and unjust,” said his mother. “My son is innocent. He did not insult or do blasphemy. He does not care much of these issues as his mind works differently than that of a normal person’s.” Before his sentencing, “Bashir was attacked by fellow [Muslim] inmates on several occasions,” including “for praying in their shared jail cell and sustained multiple injuries.”
August, 2017: A Muslim man named Muhammed Nawaz accused Asif Stephen, 16, described as a “mentally challenged” Christian, of stealing. After beating the boy, he told the local imam—who reportedly “has a history of preaching hatred towards minority Christians”—that the youth had also burned a Koran. Muhammad and the imam tracked down the boy and beat him again. When a passerby saw the violence and contacted police, “instead of protecting the teenager from his attackers, [police] arrested and booked him into prison on blasphemy charges.” Hours later, the imam and “a mob of more than 300 Muslim fundamentalists surrounded the prison, calling for a public lynching of Stephen. As the mob overwhelmed local police, Stephen was removed from his cell and handed over to the mob, which consequently beat him until reinforcement officers stepped in to calm the situation.”
May, 2015: After some Muslims claimed to have seen a Christian man burning newspapers that contained Arabic verses from the Koran, a mob quickly formed, severely beat him, and even attempted to set him on fire. The Christian youth—Humayun Masih, also said to be “mentally unstable”—was subsequently arrested, imprisoned, and charged under section 295-B. Apparently not content, the mob continued to grow, until reportedly thousands of rioting Muslims, some armed with and firing guns, rampaged and set fire to Christian homes and a church. Responding to Humayun’s arrest, a Pakistan-based human rights group said, “It is sad to see that a mob attacks the weak and demands the burning of a man who is mentally unstable.”
August, 2012: Rimsha Masih, 11, a Christian girl suffering from Down syndrome, was falsely accused of burning the Koran. Muslims responded by rioting, destroying Christian homes, churches, and crosses, tearing Bibles to pieces, and calling for her death. While under arrest, it was discovered that Muhammad Khalid, a learned Muslim cleric, had planted the charred Koran in her back pack “in order to get rid of Christians in the area.”
That so many Christians accused of blasphemy suffer from mental disorders may appear as a pretext to evade blasphemy charges. However, this overlooks the fact that “Social stigma and discrimination [habitually experienced by the Christians of Pakistan, the fifth worst persecutor of Christians] can make mental health problems worse and stop a person from getting the help they need,” to quote from one medical website. Another medical article “draw[s] attention to the link between experiences of racism [which manifest as discrimination, contemptuous treatment, etc., things experienced by Pakistani Christians] and mental health.”
There is another relevant irony that further documents the discrimination in Pakistan: Muslims who commit actual violence against Christians—as opposed to the latter whose purported offences are verbal or directed against a book—are often acquitted on the claim that they are mentally disturbed. As one example, in 2016, Akba Azhar, a 26-year-old Muslim man, broke into the Victory Church in Kasur and burned copies of the Bible and other sacred books. Although some Christians captured, detained, and delivered him to police—and although Section 295 of Pakistan’s penal code makes it a serious crime to “damage or defile any place of worship” or to “insult the religion of any class of persons”—police concluded that he was mentally unstable and released him.