Pakistani Christians Released on Bail
Defense Demands New Inquiry into Priest's Murder

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, October 10 (Compass) - Four Christians accused of killing a Roman
Catholic priest were ordered released on bail by a Pakistani lower court in
late September, 11 weeks after they were arrested by local police.

In a September 24 hearing, the Okara Additional Sessions Court accepted a bail
petition to release Christians Sharif Masih, Naimat Masih, Aslam Masih and
Parveez Masih, along with Muslim suspect Mohammed Afzel, from judicial lock-up
in Okara.

Although all five were set free the following day, they still face charges of
attempted armed robbery and the murder of Fr. George Ibrahim in Renala Khurd, a
village near Okara 180 miles south of Islamabad. No date has been set for their
trial hearings to begin.

Attorneys representing the four Christians have appealed to the courts for a
new inquiry to be conducted into the priest's unsolved murder. "We are trying
for this, and asking the government to go after the real culprits," a church
source stated. "They must drop the case against these men, because they are all
innocent."

Arrested during the week after Fr. Ibraham's murder, the Christian suspects all
denied any involvement in his death. Fr. Ibrahim, 38, was shot to death on July
5 by six gunmen who forced their way into his home in the middle of the night.
There was no evidence of any attempted theft during the attack.

Fr. Ibrahim had received death threats over the past year from Shahzina
Sadique, the former Muslim headmistress of a local Catholic girls' school
denationalized last fall and returned to church control under Fr. Ibrahim.
Together with local education officials and activists of the banned Anjum
Sipah-e-Sahaba terrorist group, Sadique had fought the government decision,
denouncing Fr. Ibrahim before a local court as an "enemy of Islam" who should
be killed.

The accused Christians told the court that although they had nothing to do with
Fr. Ibrahim's murder, they finally "confessed" to the crime while under torture
and heavy beatings by officials at the local police station.

"They were beating them from morning to night," a church source told Compass.
"Finally we forced the authorities to give them a medical exam, but they were
tortured in such a way that by that time no evidence was left on their bodies.
They used electrical shocks and thrashed them badly. One of them still cannot
walk properly."

Local police have reportedly tried to frame Sharif Masih as the main culprit.
Formerly a watchman for the church, Sharif Masih had worked for Fr. Ibrahim for
two years before taking employment nearby as a school watchman. He often
returned to visit the priest in Renala Khurd.

"The police are trying to say that Sharif and these other men came for the
purpose of robbery, and when the Father resisted, then they killed him. But
that's not true," a church source said. Rather, the local Christian community
insists, Fr. Ibrahim was a deliberate "target" of terrorism.

"The priest's cook, Pervez Pyara, is also very scared, because he is the only
eyewitness of the murder," noted a Catholic cleric who met with him. The
killers had threatened to kill Pyara if he resisted or sounded an alarm while
they shot the priest and then made their escape.

According to a Christian activist following the murder inquiry, a sixth suspect
has been arrested within the past two weeks as a possible accomplice in the
murder. Identified as Kali Angraz, an elderly man apprehended in previous theft
cases, the suspect was said to be a Christian who had converted to Islam about
five years ago.

"This fellow is still under detention," the source said. "But we are not too
sure what the charges are against him. We only came to know after the others
were released on bail that they have caught this suspect also."

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