Christian, 18, charged with blasphemy in Pakistan wins bail

Ashbeel Ghauri (2nd from right) with lawyers and parents on March 14, 2024.
Ashbeel Ghauri (2nd from right) with lawyers and parents on March 14, 2024. | (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

An 18-year-old Christian charged with blasphemy was released on bail on Thursday (March 14), saying his faith sustained him during a week of solitary confinement.

Ashbeel Ghauri was arrested on March 6 after a former classmate, Muslim Sheraz Gulistan, accused him of blaspheming Islam in a WhatsApp discussion group in January. He was charged under Section 295-A of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes pertaining to hurting religious sentiments, punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a fine, or both.

“I had no idea then that defending my Christian faith against constant intimidation by my former classmates to convert to Islam would be used to persecute me,” Ghauri told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News after his release from Attock District Jail on Thursday evening (March 14). “I did not say anything derogatory about the Islamic faith during the discussions, but I did ask questions which obviously antagonized the Muslim participants.”

Ghauri, who described himself as an introvert, said most of his time in jail was spent studying the Bible and other religious literature and praying.

“I love Jesus Christ, and I take pride in my Christian faith, but I did not like it when Sheraz and others would raise questions on Christ’s life,” he said. “My interest in studying different religions, including Islam, has given me some knowledge to respond to criticism against Christianity with academic references.”

Ghauri said discussions started heating up after war broke out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip last October.

“Sheraz used to curse Israel whenever he used to bring up the topic,” he said. “I was naturally offended by his curse words against God’s chosen people, so I used to snub him. I think this too angered him.”

The Christian said he was taken to Attock jail on judicial remand on March 7. Police did not harm him while he was in their custody for a night.

“Except for one constable, the attitudes of all the other policemen were fine,” Ghauri said. “When I was being taken to the magistrate’s court for seeking my judicial remand, that constable locked the handcuff on my wrist so tightly that it hurt me. When I complained about the pain, the constable said he would have tightened the handcuff even more because of the allegation against me.”

Prison officials did not keep him in the barrack where all other blasphemy suspects are housed, he said.

“I was locked up in a small room all alone. My time there was spent praying and reading the Bible, and I fasted for three days. One particular verse that kept me strong was God’s promise to Joshua where he says, ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Joshua 1:5)

The youth, who plans to pursue a career in computer sciences, said he missed his younger brother while incarcerated.

“I missed my parents greatly, but I missed my younger brother the most. He’s not just my brother but also my best friend,” he said. “Every day I used to recall how he would ask me to play football and other games with him. I’m very happy that God has enabled me to reunite with my family.”

Ghauri said his time in jail, where blasphemy suspects are often kept for months or years awaiting trial outcomes, had strengthened his Christian faith.

“I’d say that I’ve also become more wise and patient after this incident. I don’t know when I’ll be completely free from this case, but it has reaffirmed my faith that Christ is truly my Savior,” he said.

Beaming with joy, his father Babar Ghauri said that they were on edge regarding his bail petition.

“Though we kept our faith that God will rescue Ashbeel, we were still concerned about the outcome given the fact that bails in blasphemy cases are not an easy thing even if the charge is a bailable offense,” he told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “We are all very happy and grateful to God for His grace on us. We are also thankful to the Christian lawyers who travelled from Lahore to Attock to give us legal support.”

The Christian shared that on the day of his son’s arrest, police told him to relocate his family to a relative’s house until Islamist fury subsided.

“I was told that there could be some security issues for us, so it was better to leave our house for some days. Even today when we went to the prison to bring Ashbeel, the authorities told us to take the car inside the jail [compound] and discreetly transport him out.”

Babar Ghauri said concerns about his family’s security would remain until his son is acquitted.

“We are just praying and hoping that he is able to resume his education soon without any fear of being harmed again,” he said.

The family’s lawyer, Nadeem Hassan, said Attock Judicial Magistrate Syed Naseer Abbas had granted bail to Ashbeel against surety bonds amounting to 100,000 rupees (US$358).

“The trial will begin after the police submit the complete challan (chargesheet) in court, so we don’t know yet how much time it will take to win Ashbeel’s acquittal,” Hassan told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

Hassan, of the Christians True Spirit legal aid group, said that there were security concerns for the family.

“Ashbeel’s surety bonds were submitted by a Muslim man who is a very close friend of Babar Ghauri,” Hassan said. “That man has been with the family from the onset of the case, but today after he submitted the documents of his property as surety in court, he received threat calls from unidentified people.”

At least 329 persons were accused of blasphemy under the controversial law in 2023, according to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), an advocacy group based in Lahore. Among those accused, 247 were Muslims, 65 were Ahmadis, 11 were Christians and one was Hindu, while the religious affiliation of five others was unknown.

It added that seven persons accused of blasphemy were killed extra-judicially in 2023, including four in Punjab Province and one each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Azad Jammu Kashmir provinces.

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.