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Catholic charity concerned by Pakistan death sentence on 'blasphemous' Christian

The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need yesterday expressed its dismay at the news that the Pakistan High Court has ratified a death sentence imposed by a lower court on a Christian accused of blasphemy.

In October 1996 Ayub Masih, a Christian father from a small in Punjab province was arrested. A year and a half later he was sentenced to death by a court, in accordance with Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, for "insulting the Prophet Mohamed".

This is the first application of the death penalty since the harsh blasphemy law was introduced in 1986.

To this day Masih insists upon his innocence. Aid to the Church in Need claims it has been reliably informed that the blasphemy law appears to have provided the accuser with a welcome opportunity to gain possession of the house and land of the Masih family.

Nine days after the verdict against Masih, Bishop John Joseph of the diocese of Faisalabad took his own life in front of the court house in Sahiwal as a protest against the blasphemy law. In response to this, the implementation of the death sentence against Masih was initially suspended. However the case was heard again last month, by judges possibly intimidated by Muslim extremists outside the court shouting threats against them.

Less than 2% of Pakistanis are Christians. Aid to the Church in Need claims that judges or lawyers defending Christians in the country are "in constant danger of their lives". It points out that Muslim judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti was murdered after clearing two young Christians on a charge of blasphemy in February 1995.

In response to a request it has received from Pakistan, Aid to the Church in Need is calling for letters of protest against the recent High Court Decision to be send to the country's president.