`Blasphemy' boy's family flees rage of mullahs

`He doesn't know what's happening, he never went to school, he is just a simple child'

in Gujranwalla, Pakistan

The parents of Salamat Masih, the 14-year-old who faced the death penalty in Pakistan for blasphemy, sat with other Christian families huddled inside a muddy courtyard heaped with straw. They have yet to see their son, even though he was spared the noose when a court acquitted him on Thursday of writing graffiti insulting the Prophet.

Pakistani police warned the Masihs that it was too dangerous for them to collect their son from prison in Lahore because mobs of Islamic extremists had vowed to kill the boy and, his uncle Rehmat Masih, 44, who was also acquitted.

"I'm a poor labourer. How can I protect my son? We are helpless," said Alladitaa Masih, whose brick house is bare except for a television set, a few blankets and pictures of Jesus Christ. "Salamat must go away - leave the country. It is better, even if we never see him again."

Salamat will never return to his village of Rata Dhotan.

Neither can any of the 30 Christian families, all poor labourers, who were chased out of the village after the blasphemy accusations were made. They were forced to flee to nearby Francisabad, one of the few villages in Punjab where Christians outnumber Muslims.

"We can never go back," Salamat's father said bitterly. "A few days after Salamat was accused, around 100 Muslims came with torches and tried to burn our house down. They said that if we wanted to save Salamat and the others, we all had to convert to Islam. We would rather die."

Just a few miles away from this poor Christian settlement at the end of a dirt lane, thousands of Islamic fundamentalists had blocked traffic on the main Lahore-Islamabad road, shouting "Kill whoever protects or defends the blasphemers", "Benazir Bhutto-bitch" and "The judges must also hang".

In Lahore, police fired tear gas to disperse several thousand, stone- throwing Muslims who were protesting against the acquittal.

One prominent Muslim politician and preacher, Maulana Samiul Haq, from the Jamat-Ulema-Islamic party, said by freeing the Christians, the court "had invited the anger of Allah down on the 120 million Muslims of this country".

"We're safe now because they don't know we're here," said Salamat's mother. But their sanctuary may not last long. Salamat's father sold his four cows to pay for his son's legal expenses and now he must go to the town of Gujranwalla in search of part-time jobs that will earn him a few rupees. He fears that if he is identified as Salamat's father, his life may be in danger from the fundamentalist who are strong in Gujranwalla. Last year, a doctor was lynched by a mob there on the false suspicion that he had burned a Koran.

In the charged atmosphere of hatred, a Lahore prison cell may be the safest place for the boy and his uncle over the next few days, while Church and human rights groups make arrangements for their protection. They should have been freed when they were acquitted on Thursday. But their lawyer, Hina Jinani, said there were "delays in documentation".

Human rights activists said that these delays were a way of keeping the two Christians safe until their passports are ready and they can be spirited off to a foreign country. Several European countries, including Britain and Germany, are thought to have offered them asylum. Earlier, Germany granted sanctuary to a persecuted Pakistani Christian. The two are expected to be released today or tomorrow.

The complexities of passports and international politics seem several centuries away from the muddy courtyard where Alladitaa Masih and his friends shared a hookah pipe.

One of the Masihs' well-wishers was a man with a bristling moustache, dyed the colour of carrot. He was the father of a third accused blasphemer, Manzoor Masih. While Manzoor was in Lahore last April, attending a court hearing with Salamat, they were machine-gunned by Islamic fanatics and Manzoor was killed. "I'm sure the judges would have found my son innocent, too." the grieving father said. "We Christians should all leave Pakistan. Can you get us all visas?"

Salamat's mother, Sardara, 48, last saw her son two weeks ago, when the parents travelled 30 miles to Lahore.

"He was crying very much in prison. `Mama, you know I'm not guilty,' he told me." She added: "Salamat doesn't understand what's happening to him. He never went to school. He's a simple, quiet child."