Christian in Pakistan accused of blasphemy for refusing to convert, he says

Muslims accused Ashbeel Ghauri of blasphemy in Attock city, Pakistan after he refused to convert to Islam.
Muslims accused Ashbeel Ghauri of blasphemy in Attock city, Pakistan after he refused to convert to Islam. | (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

A former classmate of an 18-year-old Christian in Pakistan accused him of blasphemy after failing to convert him to Islam, impeding the accused’s college studies and his family’s hopes for a better future, sources said.

Police arrested Ashbeel Ghauri from his home in Attock city, Punjab Province on Wednesday (March 6) after his former classmate, Sheraz Gulistan, accused him of disrespecting Islam during a religious discussion in a WhatsApp group two months ago, said his father, Babar Ghauri.

“We were shocked when the police came to arrest Ashbeel,” Ghauri said. “My son had not shared with us before that Sheraz and some other Muslim classmates had been pressuring him to change his Christian faith.”

A devout Christian passionate about his faith, Ashbeel Ghauri had begun college while his former classmate, Gulistan, entered an Islamic seminary (madrassa), said his father, who belongs to the Presbyterian church. Gulistan and other Muslims had engaged Ashbeel Ghauri in religious discussions on several occasions in a bid to convert him, he said.

His former classmates have implicated him in a false blasphemy case to destroy his educational career and prospects because he refused to renounce his faith in Christ, Babar Ghauri said.

“Ashbeel has categorically denied making any derogatory remarks about Islam,” Babar Ghauri told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “He always asked academic questions about the Islamic faith whenever he was forcibly dragged into such conversation. As Christians living in Pakistan, we are all well aware of the sensitivities involving religious discussion, and our children are taught from day one to avoid getting into such arguments.”

Ashbeel Ghauri is the oldest of three children, and the family had pinned their hopes on him for a better future, his father said.

“It’s a crucial time for my family, especially for Ashbeel, but we know God will walk us through this test, and he will emerge victorious in faith,” he said. “His mother and I met him in prison on March 8, and though he is concerned about his condition, Ashbeel told us not to worry because he knows Christ will not forsake him.”

Gulistan accused him of saying in WhatsApp text messages in January that he did not believe in the Islamic Allah, according to First Information Report No. 185/24, registered at the Attock City Police Station under Section 295-A of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

In the text messages, Ashbeel is also alleged to have questioned the Islamic concept of allowing four marriages for Muslim men, said his attorney, Nadeem Hassan of legal aid group Christians True Spirit (CTS).

“The complainant then alleges that in a WhatsApp call to him, the Christian had allegedly said that Islam was a false religion, and its teachings were also false,” Hassan told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “Ashbeel merely stated that he believed in the God of the Bible and said his Christian faith did not allow four marriages contrary to Islamic teachings. The complainant’s allegation that Ashbeel called Islam a false religion during a phone call has not been substantiated with any evidence.”

Section 295-A relates to hurting religious sentiments and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a fine, or both, Hassan said. He said he hoped the court would grant bail to the Christian student because the text messages shared by the complainant did not contain any derogatory words against the Islamic faith.

“The court should consider the case on merit, keeping in view the fact that Ashbeel has not committed any blasphemy,” Hassan said. “The complainant has instituted the case based on text messages that were exchanged two months ago, which shows that he nurtured a grudge against the victim. It would be a grave miscarriage of justice if the court does not grant bail to the student and gives him an opportunity for a fair trial.”

At least 329 persons were accused of blasphemy under the 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.

Punjab Province had the highest number of people accused of blasphemy, with 179, followed by 79 in Sindh Province, 37 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, 32 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and one each in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, according to the CSJ report.

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

At least 2,449 persons have been accused of committing blasphemy between 1987 and 2023, according to the CSJ report. The highest number of accused by religion were 1,279 Muslims (52 percent), followed by 782 Ahmadis (32 percent), 291 Christians (12 percent), and 45 Hindus (2 percent), while the religion of other (2 percent) was unconfirmed.

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.