The intervention of ‘elders’ in Sialkot’s Urdu Bazaar may have prevented a riot, but a Christian family accused of blasphemy still fears for its safety.
Gulzar Masih, who runs one of Sialkot’s oldest book depots, was accused of telling his employees to blaspheme. The accusation was made by Khurram, the son of Masih’s former business partner, late Muhammad Ishtiaq. Masih and Ishtiaq ran the book depot together for nearly 40 years before amicably parting ways in 2000. Following the split, Ishtiaq’s family opened a money exchange office on their share of the property, while Gulzar changed the depot’s name from Ittefaq Book Depot to Gulzar Book Depot and continued selling books.
Twelve years later, the market – which testifies to the friendship between Gulzar and Ishtiaq’s families – witnessed the relationship go up in smoke.
Gulzar’s son Naveed had asked employees to clean out the store, located around the corner from the shop. “In the evening, Khurram came to the store, clutching papers that had Arabic words … I didn’t see them clearly,” Naveed recalls. “He shouted and alleged that they were holy verses that had been desecrated. He beat up a salesperson as well.”
The market’s elders, including Zafar Waseem, who runs a branch of Hafiz Abdul Haq and Sons’ stores, sat Khurram down to investigate the case. “There was nothing to the matter,” Waseem emphatically declared. “Khurram had not witnessed any desecration and had no eyewitnesses either. We told him he was making baseless allegations. I reminded him that his father and Gulzar Masih had been friends and partners for decades and this was not right.”
However, Khurram was back the next day, clutching an entire bag full of papers. He said he had found them at the trash disposal, and accused the family of ordering the desecration of the Holy Quran. “We are all Muslims and you are Christians, so you must have done it,” Naveed recalls Khurram as saying. In a short while, a number of people gathered at the store, and the family fled the area to avoid a possible mob. “We called Khurram in again,” Waseem says. “I think it was a personal dispute that he was trying to settle, he isn’t even that religious! We sorted the matter out here and didn’t involve the police or the administration.”
“Even as Muslims, it is possible that some scripture may slip from our hands while we’re putting it away. Does that constitute blasphemy? No!”
Khurram and Gulzar’s family verbally agreed to suspend hostilities and forgive and forget. Naveed says a written agreement would implicate them as being guilty. “We did not order our employees to burn any pages or destroy them.”
While the incident happened in May, Gulzar and Naveed Masih say they still receive threats.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2011.