Image: Body of Pakistani Christian loaded onto vehicle
Shahid Ikram  /  AP
Police officers load the body of Christian youth Fanish Masih, who died while in police custody, onto a vehicle in Sialkot, Pakistan, on Wednesday.
updated 9/16/2009 10:44:48 AM ET 2009-09-16T14:44:48

Pakistani Christians clashed with security forces Wednesday at the funeral of a Christian man who police said hanged himself in jail while being held on accusations he defiled the Muslim holy book. Some Christian leaders alleged he was murdered.

The clashes — just weeks after eight Christians were burned to death by a Muslim mob — are a reminder of the tensions simmering in religious minority communities in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where a spreading Taliban movement has fueled Islamist extremism.

Fanish Masih was found dead Tuesday in his cell in Sialkot, a town in Punjab province.

Jail superintendent Farooq Lodhi said the 19-year-old hanged himself using the string that held up his pants. The National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic-led advocacy group in Pakistan, called the death an "extra-judicial murder" and demanded an investigation.

Lodhi denied any crime had been committed, adding that an autopsy was being conducted.

"Those who say he was killed in the jail are in fact trying to create unrest and confrontation between Muslims and Christians," he said.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, Masih was accused of throwing a chapter of the Quran down a drain last week in Jatheki village. Muslims in the village near Sialkot responded by burning a church, and Masih was arrested the following day.

About 700 people attended Masih's funeral. Dozens of younger mourners began tossing stones at nearby police, who reacted by beating the protesters with batons and firing tear gas into the crowd, an Associated Press photographer at the scene in Sialkot said.

Christians have suspicions
Nelson Azeem, a Christian lawmaker from Sialkot, said he did not know how Masih died but said many people in the community were suspicious.

No matter how he died, he said, "it was the responsibility of the jail staff to protect his life as he was facing a serious charge."

Minority and human rights activists staged protests Tuesday in the eastern city of Lahore after word of Masih's death, with some carrying posters calling it a murder.

Strict blasphemy laws
Non-Muslims make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan's 175 million people. They are especially vulnerable to anti-blasphemy laws that carry the death penalty for derogatory remarks or any other action against Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.

Anyone can make an accusation under the rules, and they often are used to settle personal scores and rivalries.

In late July-early August, rumors that a group of Christians had desecrated a Quran sparked demonstrations that turned into riots in Gojra, a small city also in Punjab in a region dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.

Protesters set ablaze house after house in a Christian neighborhood in the town, killing eight people. Pakistani officials said the attack was incited by a radical Islamist group. A police probe had already found that no Quran was defiled.

After the Gojra killings, Pakistan's prime minister pledged the government would review the blasphemy laws.

His spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, ranked Pakistan last year as the world's top country for major increases in threats to minorities from 2007 — along with Sri Lanka, which was engaged in a civil war.

The group lists Pakistan seventh on the list of 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Congo.

More on: Pakistan

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