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American on trial for blasphemy killed at court hearing in Pakistan

CNA Staff, Jul 31, 2020 / 03:13 pm (CNA).- A U.S. citizen on trial for blasphemy in Pakistan was killed at a court hearing Wednesday, drawing strong objections to the country’s blasphemy laws from the U.S. State Department.

Tahir Ahmad Naseem was charged with claiming to be a prophet. He was being escorted by police in a courtroom in Peshawar, more than 100 miles west of Islamabad, when he was attacked and killed July 29.

Video shared on social media showed his body slumped over the seats in court, BBC News reports.

His attacker was arrested at the scene, and video shows him handcuffed and accusing Naseem of being “an enemy of Islam.”

Police are unsure how the attacker, named only as Khalid, acquired a gun in the courtroom. A police spokesman said he may have pulled the gun from a policeman’s holster, Agence France Prese reports.

The U.S. State Department said it was “shocked, saddened and outraged” by the killing.

“The U.S. government has been providing consular assistance to Mr. Naseem and his family since his detention in 2018 and has called the attention of senior Pakistani officials to his case to prevent the type of shameful tragedy that eventually occurred,” said State Department spokesman Cale Brown.

The State Department said he had been lured to Pakistan from Illinois.

Naseem was born into the Ahmadi sect, a marginalized group which faces persecution in Pakistan. However, an Ahmadi community spokesman said Naseem had left the sect and now describes himself as a prophet. The man in his YouTube videos claimed to be a messiah. The spokesman suggested he had been mentally ill, Agence France Presse reports.

In 2018 a Peshawar teenager named Awais Malik accused Naseem of blasphemy. Naseem, while living in the U.S., had begun speaking with him online.

Malik told BBC News he met Naseem in a shopping mall in Peshawar to discuss religion, and he then filed a case with police. Malik said he was not present at court and had no knowledge of the shooting.

The country’s blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy laws, accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.

The State Department urged Pakistan “to immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur.” It urged prosecution of the suspect in Naseem’s killing to the full extent of the law.

The Centre for Research and Security Studies reported that at least 65 people have been killed by anti-blasphemy vigilantes since 1990. According to the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom, up to 80 people are imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, and half of them face life in prison or the death penalty.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who was accused in 2009. Her initial conviction had also been upheld by the Lahore High Court.

The Ahmadi religious group self-identifies as Muslim, but many Muslims do not identify them as Muslim. The movement was founded in 1889 in British-ruled India. They consider their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a “subordinate prophet.” Other Muslims see this as a violation of the tenet that Muhammad was the last prophet.

There are about 500,000 Ahmadis in Pakistan and up to 20 million adherents worldwide. Some observers estimate the Ahmadi population in Pakistan is higher, but persecution encourages Ahmadis to hide their identity.

Both government authorities and mobs have targeted their places of worship. In October 2019, police in Punjab partially demolished a 70-year-old Ahmadiyya mosque, according to the 2020 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In May Pakistan’s government declined to include the Ahmadi religious group in its National Commission for Minorities.

In January 2020, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia wrote to Pakistan’s prime minister on behalf of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Catholic community, encouraging him to shape a culture of religious freedom in the country.