PAKISTAN: Christian student released on bail after arrest for blasphemy

Ashbeel GauriChristian student Ashbeel Ghauri (18) was released on bail on 14 March after a week in solitary confinement in Attock District Jail, Punjab province. Police arrested him at his home in Attock city on 6 March after former classmate 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 laws, pertaining to hurting religious sentiments, which is punishable by up to ten 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,” Ashbeel told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News after his release. “I did not say anything derogatory about the Islamic faith during the discussions, but I did ask questions which obviously antagonised the Muslim participants.

Ashbeel said discussions became heated after war broke out between Israel and Hamas in 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.”

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

According to the First Information Report registered at the Attock City Police Station, Sheraz Gulistan accused Ashbeel of saying in WhatsApp messages that he did not believe in the Islamic Allah and questioning the Islamic permission of four marriages for Muslim men.

The family’s lawyer, Nadeem Hassan of legal aid group Christians True Spirit, told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News, “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. 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.”

Before being taken to Attock Jail on judicial remand on 7 March, Ashbeel spent a night in police custody. Describing his experience, he said: “Except for one constable, the attitudes of all the other policemen were fine. 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.”

Ashbeel said prison officials did not keep him in the barracks where other blasphemy suspects are housed. “I was locked up in a small room all alone,” he explained. “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)

Ashbeel Gauri with parents and lawyersAshbeel, who is planning a career in computer sciences, is the oldest of three children and is pictured, second from right, with his lawyers and parents on the day of his release. He missed his younger brother the most while he was in prison. “I missed my parents greatly,” he said, “but I missed my younger brother the most. He’s not just my brother but also my best friend. 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.”

Stating that his time in prison had strengthened his Christian faith, Ashbeel said, “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 Saviour.”

Family “on edge”

Ashbeel’s father Babar Ghauri, who is also a Christian, said that the family had been 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 offence,” 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.”

Babar said that on the day of his son’s arrest police told him to move his family to a relative’s house until local 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 said that 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.

Lawyer Nadeem Hassan said Attock Judicial Magistrate Syed Naseer Abbas granted bail against surety bonds amounting to 100,000 rupees (€330). “The trial will begin after the police submit the complete challan [charge sheet] in court, so we don’t know yet how much time it will take to win Ashbeel’s acquittal,” he told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

The lawyer added, “Ashbeel’s surety bonds were submitted by a Muslim man who is a very close friend of Babar Ghauri. 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.”

Accusations of blasphemy often lead to violent extremist attacks on those accused and their families and homes. According to the Centre for Social Justice, an advocacy group based in Lahore, seven people accused of blasphemy were killed extra-judicially in 2023.

(Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

Photos: Christian Daily International-Morning Star News