A couple from Pakistan’s Christian minority was sentenced to death April 4 for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages, bringing the number of Christians on death row to four.
The sentence for Shafqat Emmanuel and Shugufta Emmanuel in Pakistan’s Punjab province came eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced Sawan Masih to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
The case against Masih, a street sweeper, stemmed from an alleged drunken conversation with a Muslim friend that sparked an outbreak of violence in Lahore’s Joseph Colony. The March 2013 flare-up left 180 Christian-owned homes and shops destroyed; an anti-terrorism court subsequently freed 133 Muslim suspects in spite of video evidence against them.
Also on death row: Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five. Imprisoned since 2009, Bibi was convicted after a dispute with local Muslim women who accused her of insulting Muhammad.
Pakistan’s small Christian community makes up less than 3 percent of the country’s 180 million people, with less than 1 percent considered evangelical/followers of Christ.
Wheelchair-bound Shafqat Emmanuel, 43, and his wife Shagufta, a cleaner at a local missionary school and mother to four young children, were convicted of blasphemy in the Punjab’s Toba Tek Singh district of 2 million-plus people.
The Emmanuels were accused of sending blasphemous text messages on June 18, 2013. Charges against the couple included insulting Muhammad, punishable by death, and insulting the Quran, punishable by life imprisonment.
The couple’s lawyer told Morning Star News, which reports on Christian persecution worldwide, that the judge succumbed to pressure from Islamist lawyers despite lacking concrete evidence against the couple.
“These men kept pressuring the judge during the entire trial, which was conducted in prison due to fears for the couple’s security,” attorney Nadeem Hassan said. “Even on Friday [March 28], the complainants’ lawyers kept proclaiming Koranic references calling for death to blasphemers.”
Hassan said he kept demanding during the trial that the prosecution produce the couple’s call data record but they failed to do.
“During preliminary investigations, Shagufta had told the police that her cell phone had been lost for a month and that she did not know who might have sent the alleged messages,” Hassan said. “Nevertheless, the [police] detained the couple, along with their four minor children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages.”
Hassan said that in order to appease mobs led by Islamist clerics, police forced Shafqat Emmanuel, confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, to confess that he had sent the blasphemous messages. But Hassan said Emmanuel retracted his statement when the trial judge was asked to record the confession again.
Emmanuel’s backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004 that left his lower body paralyzed. Since his accident, Shagufta Emmanuel has been the only breadwinner for the family’s four children, Ambrose, 13, Danish, 10, Sarah, 7, and Amir, 5.
Hassan said he would challenge the verdict in Pakistan’s high court once he received a detailed copy of the verdict.
Farrukh Harrison of the Christian advocacy group World Vision in Progress criticized the judge for giving the death sentence to both the husband and wife even though authorities forced a confession from the husband.
“Why was Shagufta given a death sentence when the police claim that her husband had committed the act?” Harrison told Morning Star News. “Isn’t this a travesty of justice that a poor couple has been convicted for a motiveless crime? … They are uneducated, poor people whose entire life is limited to their hometown only.”
Harrison added that Hassan told the court the couple couldn’t possibly have written the alleged texts in the regional Urdu language because they couldn’t read or write Urdu properly.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: Baptist Press