A Christian youth accused of Blasphemy for refusing to Convert in Pakistan

A recent incident in Attock city, Punjab Province, has underscored the complexities surrounding religious freedoms and interfaith relations in Pakistan. Ashbeel Ghauri, an 18-year-old Christian, was taken into custody from his residence on Wednesday, March 6, following allegations of blasphemy made by a former schoolmate, Sheraz Gulistan. These accusations stemmed from a purported incident during a religious conversation in a WhatsApp group two months prior, as conveyed by Ashbeel’s father, Babar Ghauri.

Expressing profound dismay over the arrest, Babar Ghauri recounted that the family was taken aback when law enforcement officials arrived to detain Ashbeel. He elaborated that his son had previously not disclosed the attempts by Sheraz and other Muslim peers to persuade him to convert from his Christian beliefs.

Ashbeel Ghauri, described by his father as a devout Christian with a deep commitment to his faith, had embarked on his college education, while his accuser, Gulistan, had commenced studies at an Islamic seminary. According to Babar Ghauri, who is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, there had been multiple attempts by Gulistan and other Muslim individuals to engage Ashbeel in religious debates aimed at conversion.

The allegations against Ashbeel, as per his father’s statement, are viewed as an attempt to undermine his academic pursuits and future opportunities due to his refusal to abandon his Christian faith. This situation not only affects Ashbeel’s educational journey but also casts a shadow over his family’s aspirations for a better future, highlighting the challenges faced by religious minorities in navigating their faith amidst societal pressures.

Babar Ghauri, firmly stated that Ashbeel has vehemently refuted any allegations of making disrespectful comments regarding Islam. “He consistently posed scholarly inquiries about Islamic tenets only when he found himself unavoidably involved in such discussions. Being Christians in Pakistan, we are acutely conscious of the delicate nature surrounding religious dialogue, and it is our practice to instruct our children from an early age to steer clear of engaging in such debates.”

Ashbeel Ghauri, the eldest among three siblings, represents a beacon of hope for his family, who have vested their aspirations for an improved future in him, his father articulated.

“This period represents a pivotal juncture for our family, and particularly for Ashbeel. Nonetheless, we are confident that divine guidance will see us through this ordeal, and that Ashbeel will emerge fortified in his faith,” he remarked. “His mother and I had the opportunity to visit him in custody on March 8. Despite his apprehensions about his current predicament, Ashbeel reassured us not to be perturbed, buoyed by his faith that Christ will remain by his side.”

Sheraz Gulistan leveled accusations against Ashbeel, claiming that in WhatsApp messages sent in January, Ashbeel expressed disbelief in the Islamic conception of God. These allegations have been formally recorded in the First Information Report No. 185/24 at the Attock City Police Station, invoking Section 295-A of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In the text exchanges in question, Ashbeel Ghauri is purported to have scrutinized the Islamic permission for Muslim men to engage in polygamy, up to four marriages, as conveyed by his legal representative, Nadeem Hassan of the Christians True Spirit (CTS) legal aid organization.

Hassan said, “The accuser further claims that in a subsequent WhatsApp conversation, Ghauri allegedly denounced Islam as a spurious religion, alongside its doctrines.” He continued, “Ghauri merely professed his allegiance to the deity as depicted in the Bible, clarifying that his Christian convictions do not endorse polygamy, in contrast to Islamic doctrine. The charge that Ghauri branded Islam as fraudulent during a telephonic interaction lacks any corroborative proof.”

Section 295-A, which addresses the offense of injuring religious sensibilities, carries a penalty that may include imprisonment for up to ten years, a fine, or both, Hassan explained. He expressed optimism that the court would acknowledge the absence of derogatory remarks towards Islam in the disputed text messages and consequently grant bail to Ghauri.

Hassan emphasized the importance of a merit-based judicial review, highlighting, “Considering the evidence, it is clear that Ghauri has not engaged in blasphemy. The initiation of this case, rooted in text message exchanges dating back two months, suggests a premeditated grievance harbored by the accuser against Ghauri. It would constitute a significant injustice were the court to deny bail, thereby precluding a fair trial for Ghauri.”

In 2023, a report by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a Lahore-based advocacy organization, documented that a total of 329 individuals were implicated under the blasphemy statutes in Pakistan. The breakdown of these accusations by religious affiliation revealed that 247 were Muslims, 65 belonged to the Ahmadiyya community, 11 were Christians, and one was Hindu. The religious identities of five individuals remained unidentified.

Furthermore, the report highlighted a grave concern regarding the extrajudicial killings of individuals accused of blasphemy, with a total of seven such deaths reported in 2023. These included four occurrences in Punjab, and one each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Azad Jammu Kashmir.

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