Friday, June 1, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Christian was sentenced to death for purportedly insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad, and a human rights activist yesterday urged Pakistan’s president to spare the man’s life.

Younis Masih, 29, was arrested in September 2005 on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore after residents told police he made derogatory remarks against Islam and Muhammad.

On Wednesday, a court sentenced Masih to death under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which rights groups say have been misused against Christians since former President Zia ul-Haq enacted them in the 1980s to win support of hard-line religious groups.

Shahbaz Bhatti, who heads the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance — which groups together Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis, who follow Zoroastrianism — said only President Pervez Musharraf could pardon Masih.

“I met with Younis Masih at a jail in Lahore, and he told me that he respects Islam and its prophet,” Mr. Bhatti said, adding Masih told him that dozens of Muslims thrashed him on Sept. 10, 2005, when he asked them not to sing loudly because his nephew had died, and his body was still lying at home.

“It was Younis Masih’s only mistake,” Mr. Bhatti said, adding that a group of Muslims began beating him and handed him over to police, who registered a case against him under the blasphemy laws.

Mr. Bhatti said rights groups have been demanding the repeal of blasphemy laws, saying they were being abused by religious extremists to settle personal scores and religious enmity.

He said the legal battle against Masih’s conviction will continue, but “it will take years, and during this period, Younis Masih’s fate would continue to hang in the balance.”

Pakistan is an Islamic state where non-Muslims comprise just 3 percent of the 160 million population. Anyone accused of insulting Islam, Muhammad or the Koran can be sentenced to death.

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