Christian woman in Pakistan jailed on blasphemy charges

Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. | (Alimrankdev, Creative Commons)

A Christian woman in Pakistan remains in jail on baseless charges of blasphemy after a judge rejected her bail application on Monday (June 3), sources said.

Stella Khawar, 28, was arrested on May 12 in Kharota Syedan, in the Kotli Loharan area of Sialkot District, Punjab Province, and was charged with hurting religious sentiments of Muslims, said her husband, Khawar Shahzad.

“The lawyer says he will now file for bail in the sessions court,” Khawar Shahzad said. “I don’t know what will be the outcome due to the pressure being exerted by religious groups, but my priority right now is to keep my child safe from any harm.”

With rights advocates suspecting an organized campaign against Christians following tensions in Jaranwala on Aug. 16, the charges against Stella Khawar go back to alleged incidents in August and January.

“After the Aug. 16, 2023 attacks on churches and homes of Christians in Jaranwala, there have been three or four incidents in our village in which blasphemous content was found written on currency notes and other material, including shopping bags,” Khawar Shahzad told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “This caused a lot of tension in our locality, but no one knew who was behind these actions.”

There are about 300 to 350 Christian families settled in Kotli Loharan. A member of a Pentecostal church, Khawar Shahzad said that the latest incident occurred in the village on May 10, when someone found blasphemous content written on a paper. Instead of registering a new First Information Report (FIR), police named Stella Khawar in the August and January FIRs that were previously registered against “unknown persons,” he said.

“We were at my in-laws’ house on May 12 when police came and took Stella into custody,” Khawar Shahzad said. “They claimed that they had ‘concrete’ evidence that she was responsible for the incidents of alleged blasphemy. We were dumbfounded by the allegation, but there was nothing we could do to stop the police from taking Stella with them.”

The couple has a 4-year-old son. Khawar Shahzad said he has not been able to meet with his wife since she was arrested.

“My wife is a devout Christian, and like other members of the community, she too was very upset after the attacks in Jaranwala,” he said. “However, she never said or did anything in front of me or other family members which showed that she could be involved in any such activity.”

The complainant in the cases against his wife and other Muslims are applying strong pressure on him to refrain from pursuing a defense for his wife, he said.

“The situation is such that to date, I haven’t even been able to meet Stella and ask her about the veracity of the allegation,” he said. “A Christian aid organization engaged a lawyer to file a bail petition last week, but the magistrate rejected it on June 3, Monday.”

Kotli Loharan police arrested Stella Khawar under blasphemy charges in one case on Aug. 27 and another on Jan. 7. Both FIRs were registered by a local Muslim prayer leader, Syed Jawad Ali, alleging unidentified persons had thrown blasphemous content at different places in the village with an intent to stoke religious tension between the Muslim and Christian communities, Khawar Shahzad said.

The charges were registered under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statutes, which calls for 10 years of prison for those convicted of intentionally outraging religious sentiments, and Section 505, which relates to intentionally causing fear in the public and harming public tranquility. It is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years.

Christians Targeted

Rights activists said recent incidents in Kotli Loharan were a cause of serious concern and indicate a larger campaign against area Christians.

“At least 300-350 Christian families are settled in Kotli Loharan, and there have been repeated attempts to stir religious tension in that area since the Aug. 16 Jaranwala incident,” rights activist Shahzad Imran told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “It seems an organized campaign has been launched against the Christians, a majority of whom are poor working-class people.”

Imran recalled that earlier this year, a Muslim gang in Kotli Loharan tortured two Christian brothers into reciting the Islamic conversion creed. Azam Masih, 28, and his brother, Nadeem Masih, were abducted, beaten with iron rods and pressured to convert to Islam on Jan. 22. The suspects – Naseem Shah and Sunny Shah – also recorded a video statement of the two brothers in which they were forced to say that they were converting to Islam of their own free will.

The brothers and their impoverished Christian family chose to keep silent about the ordeal, as the suspects had warned them against contacting police. With the support of Christian activists, however, the brothers registered an FIR against the Muslims, resulting in their arrest.

Imran said the situation in the area was tense after the arrest of Stella Khawar, and he and others were in contact with Muslim leaders to defuse the situation.

“I feel there’s a more sinister plot behind these cases against Christians,” he said. “I appeal to the government to conduct a high-level inquiry into the allegations against Stella. It’s quite possible that she has been targeted by the same people who want to disrupt peace and instill fear in the Christians there.”

Rights activist Napolean Qayyum said recent incident in Sargodha, in which a Muslim mob lynched an elderly Christian on false blasphemy charges and burned his shoe factory, showed how the controversial laws were being misused to settle personal rivalries.

“False allegations of blasphemy have become a norm in Pakistan,” Qayyum said. “No one is safe now, not even Muslims. The recent acts of violence show that Christians are particularly vulnerable in Punjab Province. The government needs to take every incident involving blasphemy accusations very seriously and should ensure the protection of the minorities from mob attacks.”

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.