It is a story that has become dismayingly familiar — a Pakistani Christian couple murdered by an enraged mob for allegedly desecrating the Qur'an, in a country that is fast entrenching its reputation as one of the world's most religiously intolerant nations.
But the brutality of the killings earlier this week of Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi surpassed even the usual horrific standards of such events.
'Every time I think I am inured to the bloody mess in Pakistan, something like this comes along.'
According to accounts provided to VICE News by local members of the Pakistani Christian community, the couple were burned alive in the brick kiln of their employer after being accused of committing blasphemy by setting a copy of the Qur'an on fire — a crime that their family insists they did not commit.
The double murder was the culmination of a two-day ordeal during which the couple was imprisoned by the owner of the brick factory in Kot Radha Kishan, Punjab province — a man who, relatives said, had developed a grudge against Shahzad due to an outstanding debt.
Father James Channan, a local Christian leader and director of the Lahore Peace Center who visited the couple's family after the killings, told VICE News that the family had related to him that 26-year-old Shahzad and Shama, who was 24, had been kept locked in a room for two days by the owner, Yousaf Gujjar.
On Tuesday, a mob numbering at least 1000 people descended on the room, tearing apart its fragile roof and dragging the couple out. After being severely beaten, they were stripped of their clothes and forced to walk naked around the brick kiln, suffering abuse and additional blows from the crowd.
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"All that was found in the furnace were a few bones, which were buried in two graves in Clarkabad," Fr. Channan said, referring Shahzad's home village a couple of miles from Kot Radha Kishan.
The couple's relatives were "in grave shock and a state of disbelief," he added.
Shahzad and Shama were the parents of three young children, a 6-year-old boy and girls aged 4 and 2.
Reports of the murders in the international media have suggested that the pair were beaten to death, the bodies later thrown on the furnace. But the claim that they were burned alive has been corroborated by a number of sources, including community advocates and another local pastor.
Family members told the same account to Mushtaq Gill, a partner of the British Pakistani Christians Association (BCPA) who visited the scene. They included Shahzad's older brother — one of four siblings who worked alongside him at the factory — who was also allegedly targeted by the owner and witnessed the killings. He narrowly escaped a similar fate when police officers forced the kiln owner to release him, Gill said.
The ordeal apparently began when Shama, who was four months pregnant with the couple's fourth child, carried out a cleansing ritual on Sunday evening following the death of her father-in-law. According to Muhammad Rafique, a Muslim colleague of her husband who spoke to local press and advocates, she had collected some possessions of the deceased, including some unneeded documents, and burned them, disposing of the ashes on a village rubbish heap.
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The manager of the factory noticed the charred remains of the papers and claimed along with another local resident that the couple had burned Qur'anic texts. The accusation quickly spread through the village and surrounding communities.
According to Laura Murray, a former US intelligence analyst who now researches abuses of Christian minorities, residents of several nearby villages were summoned — reportedly via mosque loudspeakers — to gather and "teach the couple a lesson."
There have been conflicting reports about the role of the police. According to some accounts, officers attempted to prevent the killings but were unable to do so due to the strength of the mob. Others claimed that they stood idly by, making no effort to intervene.
At least 38 suspects have been arrested in the case. Fr. Channan said that the killings had been widely condemned by Muslim leaders in the country, including Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulama Council, who called on the government to appoint a fact-finding committee.
But Fr. Channan noted that "our present government has the worst record of not punishing the culprits in these cases. All of them have been set free after some time. There is a big question for us — where is justice?"
He said that Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws were subject to widespread abuse and frequently invoked in order to settle personal scores.
'Western pressure on the Pakistani government should be relentless, because the pressure from within from extremist mullahs and religious leaders certainly is.'
The desecration of the Qur'an is punishable by life imprisonment under Pakistani law, while insulting the Prophet Muhammad can incur the death penalty. An unofficial moratorium on execution for blasphemy has been in force since 2008, but numerous inmates have languished on death row in the meanwhile.
"The situation is getting worse, and misuse of blasphemy laws has mounted," Fr. Channan remarked. "It is used as an easy tool to take revenge."
While such crimes have become increasingly common, the immolation of a couple and their unborn child was unique in its barbarity, he said.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws were first introduced in 1860 by the British rulers of pre-partition India, and tightened under the military government of General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s. Not long ago, the previous Pakistani administration attempted to reform the laws, but Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a policeman, Mumtaz Qadri, in January 2011 after campaigning for reform as well as a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who is still on death row in a blasphemy case that originated from an argument with a neighbor. The reform effort soon fizzled.
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Qadri, who is awaiting the death penalty in the notorious Adiala prison, has been implicated in the attempted assassination of a fellow inmate, a mentally ill British grandfather named Mohammad Ashgar. The 70-year-old paranoid schizophrenic was convicted after writing letters claiming to be a prophet, and his family and human rights activists in the United Kingdom have vigorously campaigned for his release. He was recently shot in his cell, an act that an investigation by Pakistani authorities determined was carried out by a prison guard with Qadri's encouragement.
Wilson Chowdry, director of the BCPA, told VICE News that the situation for Christians in Pakistan was getting increasingly desperate. Their victimization could be prompted by personal or commercial disputes, or the product of "pure religious hatred and the religious equivalent of 'ethnic cleansing.' "
Those who survived mob justice were subjected to years of legal wranglings, with courtrooms inevitably packed by extremists pressuring the judiciary, he said.
"Western pressure on the Pakistani government should be relentless, because the pressure from within from extremist mullahs and religious leaders certainly is, and so far, as we have seen with the Asia Bibi appeal and the pressure put on the judge by radical Islamic lawyers and the like, they are prevailing," Chowdry said.
The BCPA is appealing for donations to support Shahzad and Shama's children, and is organizing a protest outside the Pakistani Embassy in London on November 22.
"Every time I think I am inured to the bloody mess in Pakistan, something like this comes along," Chowdry said.
Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange
Photos via the British Pakistani Christians Association