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Compass Direct (06/27/06) – A Pakistani Christian has won a religious persecution award after spending eight years in prison on contested charges that he damaged a sign containing verses from the Quran.

The International Society for Human Rights (IGFM) honored Ranjha Masih, still serving his life sentence, with the newly established Stephen Endowment award in recognition of Masih’s “steadfastness in maintaining his Christian beliefs.”

Masih was unable to accept the award in person at the IGFM annual conference in Frankfurt, Hesse state, Germany on May 6.

The prizewinner remained behind bars thousands of miles away in Faisalabad Central Jail, seemingly forgotten by Pakistan ’s legal system. Three years after filing an appeal before the provincial High Court, the Christian has not been given a hearing.

IGFM said it hoped that the award, including 500 Euros (US$629), would “raise Ranjha and his family’s morale, helping them financially and improving Ranjha’s fate through greater publicity.”

IGFM Director Karl Hafen presented Masih’s award to Wasim Muntizar from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) to deliver to Masih’s family. CLAAS lawyers have been pursuing Masih’s appeal since a district court sentenced the Christian to life imprisonment in April 2003.

CLAAS lawyers told Compass they anticipate a hearing in the High Court by the end of this year. “We hope to God that he will be acquitted,” one lawyer handling the case commented.

Masih, 58, suffers from arthritis and hemorrhoids and at times experiences difficulty walking due to swelling in his knees. But the Christian remains in “good spirits,” Masih’s Faisalabad lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu informed Compass after visiting the prisoner last month.

Many Pakistani Christians despair that Masih’s case has been forgotten. His initial trial lasted five years.

“Please pray for Ranjha Masih,” Faisalabad Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts appealed to Compass. “The man has been sitting forgotten in jail for years.”

Masih was arrested on charges of blasphemy in May 1998, allegedly having disfigured an Islamic sign during a funeral procession for former Faisalabad Catholic Bishop John Joseph. Ironically, Bishop Joseph had committed suicide in front of the Faisalabad courthouse to protest Pakistan ’s harsh blasphemy laws.

Masih denied damaging the sign, and police testified in court that its invocation of Muhammad as the prophet of Islam was in perfect condition, lawyer Sindhu told Compass. But the Faisalabad Additional District and Sessions Court sentenced Masih to life imprisonment in April 2003.

Threat from Extremists

Pakistan ’s blasphemy laws stipulate life imprisonment for defamation of the Quran and the death sentence for blasphemy against Muhammad. No blasphemy convict has been executed since the law was established in 1986, but extra-judicial killings of blasphemy prisoners are common.

Human rights organizations claim that Christians and other religious minorities are disproportionately targeted under the blasphemy law.

At least 23 people involved in blasphemy cases have been murdered in Pakistan , according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. A quarter of the victims were Christians, although Christians constitute less than 2 percent of the country’s population.

Masih, his wife and six children may face greater danger if Masih is acquitted.

“In case [Masih] is released, it is to be feared that he, like other acquitted Christian blasphemy prisoners, will have to live in hiding or outside of Pakistan ,” an IGFM representative told Compass. “The threat from Islamic extremists and self-proclaimed guardians of sharia, Islamic law, would be too great.”

Cleared of blasphemy charges last month after spending eight years in prison, Christian brothers Amjad and Asif Masih have been forced to live in hiding due to threats from radical Muslims.

Most blasphemy charges in Pakistan are leveled against Muslims. In unrelated incidents, two Muslims in Punjab province were killed on June 15 and 16 for their involvement in blasphemy cases.

An angry mob in Hasilpur killed elderly school teacher Mohammad Sadiq when he tried to save a Muslim leader whom the mob was torturing on charges of blasphemy. The next day, blasphemy suspect Abdul Sattar was knifed in Muzaffargarh while on his way to court in police custody.