In Pakistan, dozens face murder charges for lynching of Christian couple

.- In Pakistan’s Punjab province, 106 people have been charged with the November 2014 murder of a Christian couple, who were attacked by a lynch mob and burned alive after being accused of blasphemy.

Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court charged that three Muslim clerics were involved in persistent provocative speech against the couple, while local media reported the clerics stirred up over 400 people against Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama, who was pregnant with the couple's fourth child.

The Christian couple were killed and their bodies burned by a mob after they were accused of desecrating the Quran. The couple lived in Kot Radha Kishan, a city located nearly 40 miles southwest of Lahore.

Another 32 alleged participants in the lynching are still at large, BBC News reports.

A peaceful joint Christian-Muslim protest was held in Lahore to protest the crime. Local Christian and Muslim leaders also met with the governor of Punjab about the case.

Before the married couple were killed on Nov. 4, angry villagers reportedly told them to convert to Islam to make amends for their alleged crime.

The couple worked at a brick kiln, and it has been reported that the kiln owner noticed Shama burning some belongings of her recently-deceased father-in-law, and charged that some pages she burnt were from the Quran – he then detained them. They owed him money, and he refused to release them without being paid.

It was then announced from local mosques that the couple had desecrated the Quran, and a mob forced their way into the room where the Masihs were held, and beat them with bricks and shovels. Reports vary as to whether or not the couple's bodies were thrown into the kiln before or after their deaths.

Pakistan's state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim. The nation has adopted blasphemy laws which impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad.

The blasphemy laws are said to be often used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities; while non-Muslims constitute only 3 percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.

Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.

In 2011 the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim critic of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was also assassinated the same year by militant supporters of the blasphemy laws.

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