Lahore, Pakistan - A young Christian man is in hiding in Pakistan from Taliban militants who seek to kill him for “blasphemy” because he defended his faith.
In February Jehanzaib Asher, 22, was working in a barbershop his family jointly owns with his cousin in Wana, South Waziristan – a Taliban stronghold in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest – when the Islamic militants showed up to try to convert him to Islam.
It was not the first time the Taliban’s Noor Hassan had delivered strident sermons to him and his relatives, and this time Asher decided not to listen silently. He defended Christianity by citing verses from the Bible, and Hassan and another Islamic militant viciously beat him – breaking his left leg and some ribs and leaving his left hand non-functional.
He told Compass that he only defended Christianity and did not comment on Islam.
“One can bear the death of one’s father or mother, but can we keep listening to insults of our religion?” Asher said.
Nearby Muslims helped him and two cousins ward off the attack. Soon the Taliban militants began spreading the word to local residents that Asher and his cousin Christopher Masih had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
Before the Pakistani military’s recent offensive against the Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, Asher said, his picture was posted at check-points in an attempt to help the Taliban and other Islamists identify and kill him.
Asher’s cousin, Zaib Masih, managed to get Asher and Christopher Masih (Zaib Masih’s brother) into a vehicle, and they fled the market area where their two barbershops are located. As barbers they were targeted for the Islamic sermonizing and attack due to the Taliban’s opposition to shaving of beards, he said.
Zaib Masih told Compass that Christopher Masih was also injured in the attack, though not as seriously as Asher. They took Asher to a military hospital, safe from the Taliban. But when military doctors asked how Asher became so badly injured, they mentioned only a “family fight” so as not to draw the ire of any Muslim soldiers who might attack them for the blasphemy allegations.
For months Asher remained at home; even neighbors were unaware of the fact that he was still in Wana, Zaib Masih said.
“We live in the army compound, but we still feared that the Taliban might tip off some one in the compound, and we might be attacked on the allegations of blasphemy,” he said.
He said that they had been born and brought up in Wana and knew many Taliban members, and with their help he approach a grand mufti to try to obtain a decree that Asher was innocent.
“I took along a lamb with me to present to the mufti in order to appease his anger, but he listened to no word and wanted to know Asher’s whereabouts,” Zaib Masih added.
Asher still walked with a limp, and the Taliban were determined to kill him, Zaib Masih said. His and Asher’s families own a house in Sialkot, and Zaib Masih said he planned to sneak him there.
Asher said the grand mufti was not present when the Taliban initially sought to kill him, and that therefore no fatwa was issued ordering his death.
“If that had happened, then I would have been killed for sure,” he said. “The Taliban were even killing the army personnel, so what capacity did we have to defend ourselves?”
Earlier this month, Asher told Compass, he disguised himself as a Muslim with a long beard and left Wana.
Initially he fled to Sialkot, Punjab Province. Soon he learned that in Wana news of his departure had spread, and that there was a rumor that three Taliban had been dispatched to Sialkot to hunt him down. Crestfallen, he fled to another, undisclosed city.
Asher told Compass that he had recovered from all injuries except for his knee, which remained swollen. He said he was receiving treatment for it at a hospital.
“Only God could have saved me from this calamity,” he said. “Otherwise, no one could save me from their hands.”
The cousins’ barbershops in Wana have been closed after the encounter with the Taliban. Zaib Masih said that two relatives have government jobs as janitors, and the two families are surviving on their meager salaries.
Since the closing of their barbershops, Zaib Masih said, the families have living hand-to-mouth – barely able to have two meals a day.
South Waziristan is the headquarters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Taliban umbrella group fighting the government, and is a hub of Arab and Uzbek Islamic militants. In mid-October the Pakistani Army launched an offensive after the Taliban managed to take the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.