National Outcry after Death of Christian in Pakistan

Bishops throughout Pakistan have written to the country’s President demanding a public inquiry after a young man died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody following a love affair that went disastrously wrong.

The official memorandum signed by the Bishops’ Conferences of both the Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan comes amid allegations that 19-year-old Robert Fanish was murdered while being detained at a jail in Sialkot district, Punjab province.

For the young man’s family, shock turned to anger on Tuesday, September 15th, when the body was released for burial covered in marks on his torso and arms, apparently showing that he had been severely beaten. Reports claim that the marks are inconsistent with police claims that Mr. Fanish hung himself. Autopsy results are due in a few days’ time.

The funeral in Sanbrial, a town in Sialkot, attracted more than 3,000 people who mourned the loss of a Christian man whose three-year relationship with an 18-year-old Muslim woman ended in catastrophe. Determined to put an end to the liaison which breaks social and religious taboos, the woman’s mother is accused of fabricating a claim that Mr. Fanish had desecrated the Qur’an, a crime worthy of life imprisonment according to Article 295B of Pakistan’s Penal Code.

It is alleged that she complained to Muslim leaders and in response a mob of extremists burnt down the church in Jethki, the village in Sialkot where she and Mr. Fanish lived. All the Christians in Jethki are said to have run for their lives.

Reports received by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, say Mr. Fanish’s funeral yesterday developed into a protest about the circumstances of his death. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds after tensions rose.

In response, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, joined forces with his Protestant counterparts from the Church of Pakistan in drawing up an official memorandum requesting a ‘fair inquiry’ into Mr. Fanish’s death.  The document has been sent to Pakistan President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Syed Gilani and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab Province and brother of former Prime Minister Nawar Sharif.

Speaking to ACN, Fr. Andrew Nisari, Vicar General of Lahore Archdiocese said, “Each one of us is furious about what happened to Robert. For us, it is clear that the police have taken the law into their own hands and have killed him.”

Stressing that it was the fourth incident of its kind within three months – each incident involving violence against the Church prompted by a Blasphemy Law allegation – Fr. Nisari said Christians in Pakistan felt under ever-increasing strain.

He said, “The situation for us is getting worse and worse. There is a wave of unrest going around the country in which people are using any opportunity they can to put pressure on Christians.

Fr. Nisari said that the demonstrations at Mr. Fanish’s funeral coincided with a demonstration of 600 people in front of the Press Club in Lahore. He added that the Catholic-run National Justice and Peace Commission, based in Lahore, has also called on the government to instigate a public inquiry into the death.

The NJPC is spearheading a national petition calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s controversial Blasphemy Laws, which are widely seen as subject to violent abuse and prejudicial against minorities. ACN has joined the call for action to abolish the Blasphemy Laws.

Aid to the Church in Need also spoke out last month after nine people were killed in the Punjab city of Gojra, again in a wave of violence linked to the Blasphemy Law.

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