Christian on death row for 22 years because of letter he wrote

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In a significant move, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has directed the country’s top Islamic

Anwar Kenneth has been in prison since 2001, accused of blasphemy. (Photo: Reproduction/Court Pakistan)

body to advise on whether a letter that left a Catholic on death row for 22 years was in fact blasphemous, sources said.

Attorney Rana Abdul Hameed said the top court on March 12 sought the opinions of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and two Christian religious bodies on whether a letter by a 70-year-old former government employee, Anwar Kenneth, falls within the definition blasphemy under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s controversial of statutes. The section calls for a mandatory death sentence for insulting Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

The three-judge bench comprising justices Jamal Khan Mandokhel, Syed Hasan Azhar Rizvi and Musarrat Hilali gave the direction after a long-awaited hearing of Kenneth’s appeal against the Lahore High Court’s 2014 decision to uphold his death sentence by the trial court, Hameed told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

Kenneth, a former senior officer in the Punjab Fisheries Department, was convicted for sending a letter to Muslim religious scholars, Muslim heads of state, foreign diplomats in Pakistan, the United Nations secretary-general, and Christian theologians in 2001 in which he rejected Muhammad’s prophethood, Hameed said.

The lawyer argued that the rejection of Muhammad’s prophethood by non-Muslims could not be considered blasphemy.

“Though Islam is one of the three Abrahamic faiths, and Muslims believe in all prophets, including Jesus Christ, Christians and Jews don’t believe in Prophet Muhammad,” Hameed said. “In his open letter, Kenneth merely stated that his Christian belief does not endorse Islam. He hasn’t used any derogatory language for Prophet Muhammad that warranted a conviction under blasphemy.”

He added that the court had directed the Council of Islamic Ideology, the Pakistan Church Council, and the United Church Council of Islamabad to submit their opinions at the next hearing expected on April 10.

A three-member Supreme Court bench in January 2023 noted the need for legal representation for Kenneth, who has been in prison since his arrest in September 2001, and requested the Pakistan Bar Council to provide a defense attorney after five state-provided lawyers recused themselves from the case.

Hameed, a Muslim attorney who has successfully defended several persons falsely charged with blasphemy, agreed to represent the Christian with the support of advocacy group Jubilee Campaign Netherlands.

“It is now up to the religious institutions from both sides to analyze the matter in light of their respective teachings and jurisprudence and inform the court,” he said. “Kenneth is suffering from mental and physical ailments and has already spent 22 years in solitary confinement in various prisons in Punjab Province. I believe it’s high time he gets the justice he deserves and reunites with his family.”

In July 2002, an additional sessions judge in Lahore handed the death penalty and a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$1,796) to Kenneth. Despite the conviction, the Christian refused the assistance of a defense lawyer, saying God was his counsel.

On June 30, 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld the verdict of the trial court, confirming his death penalty. Due to the absence of legal counsel, however, the case faced challenges in proceeding.

‘I Wish to See My Brother Before I Die’
Kenneth worked as a deputy director in the fisheries department when he was arrested. His family members say he’s a well-educated man with a deep interest in his Christian faith.

“My brother was a Bible scholar and often engaged in scholastic discussions with his Muslim friends and religious leaders,” said Kenneth’s 83-year-old elder sister, Reshma Bibi. “He also communicated his religious ideas and values through his letter-writing, but he was never disrespectful towards any holy personality. It was one of these letters that was used to silence him.”

She expressed her deep desire to see her brother walk free in her lifetime.

“It’s been years I haven’t been able to see my brother in prison due to my weak health,” Bibi said as tears welled in her eyes. “I miss him every day of my life, and I just hope that God will give me a chance to spend time with him before I die.”

Haroon Gill, a nephew of Kenneth, said he had last met his uncle in February.

“He is very weak and under a lot of stress,” Gill told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “We can only visit him twice a month, but for the last five months, we weren’t allowed to meet him.”

He added that Kenneth’s 65-year-old wife also hadn’t seen her husband for a long time due to health reasons.

“My uncle’s only son permanently left Pakistan soon after his arrest due to threats to his life,” Gill said. “We have also suffered a lot of difficulties due to this case. The attitude of our Muslim neighbors is still very hostile after all these years. Several people have attempted to stir religious tension in a bid to grab our ancestral agricultural land.”

The young Christian said that he hoped that the Supreme Court would consider the appeal on humanitarian grounds and acquit Kenneth of the charge.

“We can only pray and hope for justice for my uncle,” he said. “He has suffered enough, and it’s our greatest wish that he’s able to spend whatever years are left of his life in peace and comfort of his family.”

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.
 

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