A court in Pakistan has sentenced a Christian man to death following a blasphemy allegation.
Ashfaq Masih was accused of committing blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ is the only true prophet in June 2017.
Masih pleaded not guilty in court and said the accusation stems from a dispute with a rival business owner.
He said: "I am innocent, the case against me is baseless, false and frivolous and framed against me just to destroy my business. My business was running well, and I was very happy but Muhammad Naveed who is also a motorcycle mechanic and had started a shop in front of me and was jealous because my business was doing well and had a good reputation in the area. We had already fought a few days before the incident. And he had threatened me with dire consequences.
He continued: "On the day of the incident, I had an argument with Muhammad Irfan, who was refusing to pay me after getting his bicycle repaired. When I asked Irfan to pay the bill we agreed, he responded by saying 'I am a follower of Peer Fakhir (Sufi Muslim ascetics) and don't ask for the bill'. I insisted for my bill and said that I don't follow anyone other than Jesus, and so wasn't interested in the man's religious status.
"Irfan went to Naveed's shop and after a few minutes he came back and turned the whole matter into religious affairs and started accusing me of committing blasphemy. People started gathering around and my shop, and the owner, Muhammad Ashfaq, who had already asked me to vacate his shop, also arrived. This was an opportunity for Naveed and Ashfaq to settle the score, so they complained to the police and the police registered a first information report (FIR) under blasphemy law section 295 C which has a mandatory death penalty."
According to Pakistani Christian persecution charity CLAAS-UK, Ashfaq's older brother Mehmood said that on the morning of 4th July no proceeding was taking place, but the additional session judge at Pakistani Session Court just announced the judgment and handed a copy of the judgment to his brother.
He said: "The sudden judgment stunned me and I didn't know what to do. I hardly gathered myself and came out of the courtroom and started crying as it was the end of the world for me. I rushed home and informed my family. My wife and children also started crying. As the news spread my relatives started visiting to console us, but it was not easy for me as Ashfaq is my only brother and I love him very much, I can do anything for him."
Nasir Saeed, the director of CLAAS-UK said it is a very sad yet expected judgment.
He explained: "I don't remember any case where the lower court decided to grant bail or freed anyone accused of the blasphemy law. The judges are aware that such cases are made to punish and settle personal grudges with the opponents, especially against the Christians.
"Because of pressure from the Islamic groups, lower courts' judges are always hesitant to free the victims but make popular decisions to save their skin and shift their burden to the high court. Ashfaq's case was very clear - the shop owner wanted him out and Naveed was a business rival who implicated him in a false blasphemy case. He is innocent and has already spent five years in prison for a crime he never committed."
He further said that it is the second case within 30 days where a Christian has been sentenced to death. On 11th June, the High Court upheld the death penalty of two Christian brothers, Amoon and Qaiser Ayub.
Saeed said: "The vigilante killing and misuse of the blasphemy law continues to grow in Pakistan, especially against religious minorities. Several innocent people have been killed and their worship places are attacked merely on allegations of blasphemy.
"The National Assembly has passed a resolution calling for the law not to be abused in ways like this, but failed to bring any changes or legislation to stop the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law.
"CLAAS continues to raise its concerns with the Pakistani government whenever possible, but so far our call for change has fallen on deaf ears."
CLAAS is in touch with the family and is working with its partners to submit an appeal in the high court against the lower court's judgment.