SIALKOT, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Tensions remained high Thursday, September 17, in Pakistan’s Punjab province after police dispersed angry crowds protesting against the death of a young Christian prisoner, who was held for allegedly desecrating the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims.
The violence broke followed the funeral of 20-year old Robert Fanish, whose body was found Tuesday, September 15, in his cell in the city of Sialkot.
Jail Superintendent Farooq Lodhi was quoted as saying that Fanish hanged himself using the draw string that held up his pants. The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a Catholic-led advocacy group, called the death an “extra-judicial murder” and demanded an investigation, Pakistan media reported.
His death is part of a rising trend of violence against minorities in Pakistan, a panel of Pakistani human rights groups said. It follows the burning deaths of six Christians in July, and mob attacks against Christian houses and a church in March and June.
In a statement to BosNewsLife, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, said he has taken “serious notice of Robert Masih” death, also known as Fanish, in the Sialkot District Jail and pledged to order an “immediate inquiry of the incident.”
The government, he said, “considers its prime responsibility to protect the lives and properties of minorities and will not allow any one to break the law and to harm the lives and properties of minorities in Pakistan.”
Fanish was detained over the weekend in the village of Jathikai and charged with blasphemy, after reports that Masih snatched parts of the Koran from the hands of a Muslim girl and threw away into the the sewer line.
However his supporters denied the charges, saying he admired the girl.
Critics also say the statute blasphemy has been often used against minorities in Pakistan, with Christians detained across this mainly Muslim nation.
News of the Fanish’s alleged blasphemy sparked riots and angry Muslims reportedly torched a Catholic Church and two adjacent houses. Muslims also held a rally and shouted slogans against Christian and Christianity on September 13.
The next day Christians protested in the areas of Sargodha and Peshawar against the “atrocities,” Christian rights campaigners said.
Minister Bhatti said he has visited the restive area and pledged “to grant funds for reconstruction” of the destroyed church and “consoled” with Christian families.
Local authorities also ordered an investigation into the death and are investigating whether to charge the jail staff with negligence.
The inspector general of prisons for Punjab Province, Kokab Nadeem Warriach, declined to say whether he believed that Fanish’s death was allowed or perpetrated by police guards.
He told reporters that three prison officials had been suspended, and that the investigation ordered by the provincial government would conclude this week.