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LAHORE, Pakistan (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pakistani Christian Asif Pervaiz, a father of four, was sentenced to death for blasphemy last week.
The 37-year-old factory worker is accused by his supervisor of sending defamatory comments about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad to him via text message. He was convicted after a trial in Lahore that has been ongoing since 2013.
Pervaiz said that his boss, Muhammad Saeed Khokhar, tried to pressure him into converting to Islam. After refusing to change his religion, Pervaiz was accused of sending blasphemous messages about Islam to Khokhar.
Khokhar denied pressuring Pervaiz to convert. The Lahore court ruled that Pervaiz did not offer sufficient evidence for his innocence and sentenced him to death. He was also fined 50,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $300).
Pakistan's blasphemy law (articles 295b and c of the Pakistan Penal Code) provides for life imprisonment or the death penalty for the crime of insulting Muhammad, Islam or the Koran.
In an interview with Church Militant, Fr. Qaisar Feroz, OFM Cap., executive secretary of the Commission for Social Communications of the Catholic Bishops of Pakistan, explained: "The Christian community of Pakistan is deeply saddened by the death sentence of Asif Pervaiz. We strongly appeal to the government of Pakistan to reconsider the court's decision so that justice may be served."
"The blasphemy cases are increasing day by day in Pakistan, which is not at all a good sign of a tolerant society," Fr. Feroz warned. "We strongly recommend that the prime minister, Imran Khan, ensures to launch a video advocacy campaign to promote minority rights and human dignity."
To protest Pervaiz's death sentence, a day-long hunger strike was observed by Christian political activists in Karachi on Sept. 9.
Shabbir Shafqat, president of the National Christian Party (NCP), led a group of his supporters to a press club for the hunger strike. He criticized the death sentence, asserting it is a discriminatory miscarriage of justice.
"In Asif's case, it is by no means proven that the messages were sent by him; there was no forensic investigation to see from which phone the messages were sent," Shafqat noted. "The police only concluded the case based on the prosecution's statements."
"These cases and false accusations are totally based on discrimination," he continued. "I am very afraid for the future of minorities in Pakistan. These cases are driving many minority members to leave the country. We must pray for our nation, for the police in Pakistan and for the judicial system."
According to the Center for Social Justice, an aid agency founded and led by Pakistani Catholic Peter Jacob, since 1990 at least 77 people have been killed in extrajudicial executions stemming from accusations of blasphemy. Among those killed are Christians accused of blasphemy, their family members, their lawyers and judges who acquitted the accused of the crime.
Pervaiz's attorney, Saif-ul Malook, argues the evidence was clearly not enough to sentence his client to death. Malook told Christian Solidarity Worldwide, "I hope he will be freed by the High Court where we have filed an appeal. Sadly, Asif will continue to be incarcerated until his appeal is heard."
Malook previously represented Asia Bibi, whose death sentence was acquitted by Pakistan's Supreme Court in 2018 after the Catholic mother had spent nearly a decade on death row after she was accused of insulting Islam. Bibi's case garnered international attention and sparked increased criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country. Christians, who make up just 2% of the nation's population, face rampant persecution for adhering to their faith. According to Open Doors USA's 2020 World Watch List, Pakistan is ranked as the fifth-worst country in the world for Christian persecution.