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What’s behind the latest killing of a Christian in Pakistan?

The death of Nazir Masih, a Christian in his 70s, was announced Monday, nine days after he was attacked by a mob in Sargodha, a city in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

A street scene in Sargodha, Pakistan. Sikandar Sajid via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

The Catholics in Pakistan website published a photograph June 3 of Masih’s body being lowered into the earth in a black coffin bearing a cross.

The website reported that the burial took place in Sargodha’s Mujahid Colony, following a funeral service led by Protestant pastors and attended by Catholic representatives.

Why was Masih killed by a mob? Will anyone be brought to justice? And is life getting worse for Pakistan’s Christian minority?

The Pillar takes a look.


What happened?

Trouble flared on May 25 in Sargodha, a city in northeastern Pakistan with a population of around 660,000 people.

The disturbance took place in the city’s Mujahid Colony, an area with both Christian and Muslim residents, following the reported discovery of burnt pages of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. According to the 2017 Census of Pakistan, 94.7% of the city’s inhabitants are Muslim and 5.17% Christian.

The suspected act of blasphemy — an offense punishable by life imprisonment — was announced over loudspeakers and locals were urged to gather on the street. 

A mob formed outside of a shoe factory belonging to Nazir Masih (also known as Lazar Masih), as well as his home, two blocks away. They set fire to the factory, destroyed his house, and attacked him using bricks, sticks, stones, and steel rods.

Footage posted on social media showed Masih — whose age is given by different sources as between 72 and 76 — lying on dusty ground with a wound to his head, surrounded by a crowd. An ambulance sent to help him was reportedly forced to turn back.

Masih was eventually taken to a local hospital and later to a military hospital in Rawalpindi, another city in Punjab province.

Although he was in critical condition, Masih was reportedly charged with blasphemy offenses. Police also charged 44 named people and 450 unnamed individuals for their suspected role in instigating mob violence.

According to a death certificate posted on social media, Masih was declared dead June 3, due to “cardiopulmonary arrest.” Some reports claim he succumbed to his injuries earlier, but the certificate was withheld in an effort to dampen local tensions.

Will justice be done?

Despite the charges filed against suspected mob instigators, observers are skeptical that those responsible for killing Masih will be brought to justice.

Faraz Pervaiz, a Pakistani Christian living in exile in Bangkok, Thailand, pointed to the lack of prosecutions following mob violence in previous alleged blasphemy cases.

“It has never been the style of the Pakistani judicial system, as since decades this practice has been executed continuously but so far not a single culprit or responsible has been awarded with any punishment,” he told The Pillar June 3.

Massimo Introvigne, the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Bitter Winter, noted that often when media coverage dies down “those arrested are quietly released.”

Introvigne suggested that Masih’s “real crime” was to oversee a thriving shoe business, provoking jealousy among his competitors. Commentators argue that Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws are often used to settle local scores, because false accusations can be made with impunity.

Following the assault on Masih, Bishop Samson Shukardin, the Bishop of Hyderabad in Pakistan and president of Pakistan’s bishops’ conference, urged the authorities to make it an offense to make false allegations of blasphemy.

“It is very important that legislation is introduced whereby those found to have wrongly accused people of blasphemy are given sentences including jail terms,” he told the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need.

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Is it getting worse?

Bishop Shukardin said that the climate was deteriorating for Christians in Pakistan.

He cited “major incidents” such as a mob rampage in August 2023 in Jaranwala, another city in Punjab province, in which 26 churches were burned down, and the Sargodha attack.

But Shukardin stressed there were “many other more minor incidents taking place.”

“Generally, when you see how many incidents have taken place, you begin to realize that these incidents are increasing day by day,” he said.   

John Pontifex, the head of press and public affairs at the U.K. branch of Aid to the Church in Need, told The Pillar in a June 3 email that the charity also thought conditions were worsening. 

“Our sense is that there has been a general downturn and this is reflected also in an uptick in cases of girls and young women from Christian and other minority backgrounds suffering abduction, forced conversion, and marriage,” he said.

Pontifex cited the recently published annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

He noted that a section on Pakistan “references an increase in a) terrorist attacks targeting religious minorities/places of worship, b) harassment of minorities and related violence, and c) forced conversions of minority faith girls.”

A USCIRF report on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, released in December 2023, suggested blasphemy cases were on the rise. 

In Punjab province alone, it said, “551 individuals were imprisoned for blasphemy, including 506 adults under trial and 45 convicted, as of November 2023.” 

The report urged the U.S. government to “encourage the Pakistani government to enact reforms to ensure higher thresholds of evidence and proper investigation of blasphemy cases, in addition to making blasphemy a bailable offense.” 

“It also should ensure that false accusations and perjury are investigated and punished under Pakistan’s penal code,” it said. 

But with little prospect of blasphemy law reform in sight, and after the terrifying incidents in Jaranwala and Sargodha, Pakistan’s Christians will be wondering if they have a future in the country.

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