Thirty miles from Faisalabad, in Gojra, a city of Toba Tek Singh district, is a small rundown house, with white paint peeling off. The door has been locked since July 2013. The house belongs to Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, a Christian couple languishing in jail for nine months now. Their alleged crime? Sending a profane text to a local mosque cleric on his mobile phone. Their punishment? Death.
“She can’t read or write. One of her main duties was to take kids to the restroom,” said Kaleem Akhter, principal at St John’s Cathedral Girls High School, where Shagufta worked as a helper, earning Rs3,500 a month. Looking around at the back of the school, where the Christian couple had been given free accommodation by Bishop John Samuel, the principal said that Shagufta lived with her husband, a handicapped man who had his own mobile phone repair shop. Her four children studied at the same school free of cost.
Gesticulating eagerly, Mariam Faiz, a middle-aged neighbour of the couple, emerged from her house, keen to narrate, in a piercing tone, the dramatic scene in July last year when late afternoon six to seven vehicles with around 40 policemen and policewomen came to their neighbourhood.
“Police barged into my house and inquired about Shagufta,” she said. “They took away our mobile phones and told us to go outside.” Mariam recalled that when she went outside she heard Shagufta’s four children wailing loudly. Soon, the police, after identifying the couple, took the entire family away.
The death sentence handed down by the court on April 4 jolted Alphonse John Sahutra, former nazim of Faisalabad’s Christian community. “Most people in my community are illiterate and don’t know how to read or write, let alone send texts,” he said. “This SMS situation has become really dangerous: people can steal mobiles and use them to send profane texts, framing others in the process.”
He added there were no protests in the neighbourhood because people were already scared owing to Gojra’s history of attacks on Christians.
Having a Christian population of about 100,000, Gojra is no stranger to allegations of blasphemy. In 2009, Christians in Gojra were mobbed after a rumour was floated that a copy of the holy Quran had been desecrated. The rumour spread like wildfire — literally. Mobs burnt down nearly 40 houses, a nearby church and killed eight Christians.
“I don’t think a text message can be admissible as evidence in court — it is bound to get thrown out at the high court level, as has happened to all such fabricated evidence in the past in such cases,” said Beena Sarwar, a human rights activist and vocal critic of the blasphemy law. Referring to the case as both “ridiculous and sad”, she added: “It was a continuation of the kind of persecution we’ve been seeing particularly since Section 295-C [of the Pakistan Penal Code] came into effect and the option of life imprisonment was removed.”
This section of the blasphemy law was a subject of discussion earlier in the day between Qari Mohammad Afzal, chairman of the Pakistan Aman Council, and former nazim Sahutra when they came to the Faisalabad Press Club and sat together for what was a first dialogue regarding the Christian couple case.
“[Section] 295-C itself should not end but certain hurdles in the legal system should be addressed to prevent innocents from being accused,” said Afzal. Speaking of the camaraderie of Muslims and Christians in the community, Afzal said: “We go to their churches, they come to our mosques. The bishop sends us cake on our festivities and we take part in their Christmas celebrations.”
According to him, a blasphemy case of this nature is a first for him. Many incidents come to his notice that don’t even make it to the media, he claimed, but he had never come across a case where profanity was committed through a text message. Sahutra nodded in agreement but dismissed the notion that any Christian would send a profane message deliberately, knowing the repercussions.
The outcome that Sahutra alluded to was evident in the Gojra graveyard we had passed by earlier, redolent of the tragedy of 2009. It was broad daylight but eeriness engulfed the air. The car kept moving, the location blurring but still serving as a chilling reminder of the disastrous implications of blasphemy accusations.