Police have detained two Christian women after their brother went into hiding this week, following an accusation of blasphemy from a “friend” who claims Naseem James sent him an un-Islamic poem on the messaging application WhatsApp.
Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports that James is currently a fugitive in the town of Sara-e-Alamghir after a man named Yasir Bashir told police James sent him a poem that was disrespectful of Muhammad and other Islamic historical figures. Police have not revealed the contents of the alleged poem or made a statement on whether they had seen the WhatsApp message in question. They have taken two of James’s sisters into what they are calling “protective custody,” claiming that the women are in danger of vigilante attacks from Muslim mobs, who have attacked Christians in the past accused through rumors of offending Islam.
Reports on Pakistani Christian websites state that Muslim imams in the area are calling for Muslims to burn down Christian homes until James is apprehended.
Blasphemy is illegal in Pakistan, and the nation’s constitution only protects free speech outside of criticism of Islam. The free speech clause of the constitution is subject to “reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam.” Insulting Muhammad personally is punishable by death. Over 1,400 people were arrested for blasphemy in Pakistan in 2014, and experts expect that number to grow.
Christian advocacy groups in Pakistan argue that the detention of James’s relatives is a method of putting pressure on him to surrender himself, not a protective measure in the best interests of the family. Khalid Shehzad, president of the Christian Muttahida Masihi Party, told the nation’s Express Tribune that James had married a Muslim girl who had converted to Christianity, an act that had made him the target of hatred from Muslim neighbors. He confirmed that Amir James, the brother of the man who baptized Naseem James’s wife, has also been arrested, while the pastor himself is in hiding.
Shahzad insists that there is no evidence that the offending WhatsApp poem exists and that the charge against him is revenge for his marriage to a former Muslim. “Nadeem did not commit any crime. He is facing this situation because he married a woman from a Muslim family,” he told reporters. While apostasy — abandoning Islam — is not a crime in Pakistan, it is widely seen as a cardinal sin by Muslims.
Social media has created some variety in the types of blasphemy cases surfacing in Pakistan. While accusations of defacing Qurans are still common, the WhatsApp case is not alone in having a technological angle. In May, a man was charged with blasphemy after his neighbors accused him of watching an anti-Islamic video on his telephone. As in the Naseem James case, there is no evidence that police have proof that he watched the video or details as to what the alleged video’s content was. Imran Masih had allegedly developed a close relationship with a Muslim girl before the video accusation surfaced, and a Muslim mob beat him severely before he went into hiding.