Christians in Pakistan are often relegated to undesirable jobs such as manual sewage cleaning, but Nadeem Samson’s small business selling herbal medicines was doing so well in 2016 that he out-earned his younger brother, Anjum, who had relocated to New York City.
With his extra savings, Nadeem offered a cash loan to a landlord in exchange for rent-free housing — a common informal system in Pakistan, where loans can be difficult to obtain.
However, Nadeem did not expect that the living arrangement would result in a blasphemy accusation — a criminal charge in Pakistan — costing him years of his life and heavy emotional and financial stress for his family.
In Pakistan, religious minorities, including Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, live under constant threat of blasphemy allegations that lead to fines, jail time and even death sentences. Laws restricting religious observance date back to India’s British rulers but were expanded with the present blasphemy laws by the Pakistani government in the 1980s. They prohibit making derogatory remarks against Islam, desecrating the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, which can all be subjectively interpreted in courtrooms.
Critics say the blasphemy laws are commonly used to settle personal disputes, and the mere allegation makes the accused person a target for religious extremists to attack. According to one survey by the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, 200 blasphemy cases were registered in 2020, the worst year on record since the blasphemy law’s inception in 1987.
How a housing dispute led to a blasphemy charge
Nadeem had contacted a real estate office that put him in touch with Sakhawat Dogar, a Muslim man living in a Muslim neighborhood, or colony.
“It is best for a Christian to live in a Christian colony,” Anjum said. “I reminded Nadeem of the dangers of moving to a Muslim colony, but he did not listen to me.”
According to Anjum, Nadeem went ahead with the contract, paying Dogar 400,000 Pakistani rupees — about $4,000 — and moving into his upper apartment. At the end of 18 months, Dogar was to repay Nadeem the money, and Nadeem would move out, Anjum said.
All went smoothly, Anjum recounted, until 18 months later, when Nadeem prepared to vacate and asked for his 400,000 rupees back — Dogar refused.
The situation came to a head in November 2017. While Nadeem was alone in the apartment, the Federal Investigation Agency broke in and ambushed Nadeem. According to Anjum, the FIA tied Nadeem up while they created a fake Facebook account using a duplicate SIM card with Nadeem’s phone number and published blasphemous content about Muhammad. Anjum said he believes Dogar bribed the agency.
Nadeem was taken to a torture cell, where three days later he finally was forced to confess to authoring the blasphemous content, Anjum said. Shortly after, a mob that included the police burned Nadeem’s belongings and documents.
This is a very different story than the First Information Report registered by Abdul Haq, a relative of Dogar’s, presents. According to police, Nadeem shared blasphemous content on Facebook that insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, along with information that would harm Abdul Haq due to a personal grudge against him. An interrogation carried out in Nadeem’s apartment led him to confess, the police report stated.
In Pakistan, your ID card is required to state your religion, so Dogar would have known Nadeem’s religion from the first meeting.
After spending nearly four years in the Lahore District Jail, Nadeem’s case is slowly winding through the trial court system. A Pakistani Catholic nonprofit organization, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, has been coordinating the legal team for Nadeem for the past two years, but little progress has occurred in the Lahore courts.
Now, NCJP has engaged Saif-ul-Malook — the attorney who represented Asia Bibi’s, Shagufta Kauser’s and Shafqat Emmanuel’s blasphemy cases — to represent Nadeem’s bail petition at the Supreme Court level after the Lahore High Court dismissed his bail petition. A law in Pakistan requires that if a case has not been settled for two years and the delay was not caused by the accused, the accused must be released on bail.
In 2017, lawyers were able to secure bail for Adnan Prince-Masih, a Christian man accused of blasphemy in 2013, on the same grounds of delay. His case had been pending for three years.
Saif-ul-Malook has already filed Nadeem’s bail petition on the same grounds as Prince’s case and is now waiting for a hearing date.
A devoted brother
Since Nadeem’s arrest, Anjum has thrown himself into advocating for his brother’s acquittal and immediate release. After a British woman tweeted about Nadeem’s case online, Anjum gained traction by opening a Twitter account, @FreeNadeemSam, and connecting with anyone who could help through social media.
He joined U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom roundtables and attended the International Religious Freedom Summit in July. He’s found that the most helpful allies are European diplomats and politicians — such as Ambassador Jos Douma, the Netherlands special envoy for religion and belief, and Tristan Azbej, the minister for Christian persecution from Hungary.
Anjum even turned down an offer from the New York City Police Department to work as a dispatcher after a seven-month hiring process. He prefers to work as a security guard, which allows him more flexibility to advocate for his brother.
As the sole breadwinner for Nadeem’s family as well as his youngest brother’s family, Anjum relies on $100-$200 extra per month collected by a GoFundMe account, which was created by the same British woman who tweeted about Nadeem’s case.
“I am not sure how it’s possible, but each month God provides,” Anjum said.
Due to security concerns, Anjum also arranges for new housing every few weeks for his youngest brother’s family.
“I worry about his children because they cannot go to school,” he said. “They have to remain in hiding and move constantly.” The brothers’ parents passed away several years before Nadeem’s arrest.
Blasphemy in Pakistan
Anjum has included the names of 26 others on flyers he printed on behalf of Christians who have suffered because of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. They also languish in jail, awaiting trial for release or punishment. Every few weeks, another name is added to the list.
“I mention their names too because they are not able to,” Anjum said. “Whenever I mention my brother, I bring them up because they have no voice.”
Pakistan is designated as a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department. Open Doors, a nonprofit aiding persecuted Christians, ranks Pakistan the fifth worst country with respect to persecution of Christians.
The European Union recently passed a resolution to review Pakistan’s GSP+ trade designation — which reduces tariffs imposed on developing countries — due to the sharp uptick in blasphemy accusations and arrests.
Organized by Human Rights Without Frontiers, a number of human-rights nongovernmental organizations — including the Free Nadeem Samson campaign — recently presented a letter to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell urging Pakistan’s GSP+ trade status be revoked. The designation requires Pakistan to meet 27 human rights standards to import duty-free into the EU.
In addition to Nadeem Samson, listed as Nadeem James, the letter lists the names of 46 other Christian, Ahmadi, Shia and Hindu Pakistanis currently imprisoned under the blasphemy law.
More and more frequently, blasphemy accusations involve content generated on social media, such as WhatsApp messages or Facebook posts, like in Nadeem’s case.
Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan are notoriously difficult to overturn as Islamist groups pack court rooms, threaten lawyers and incite violent riots across the country to prevent or overturn blasphemy acquittals.
After Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, was acquitted in 2018, religious hardliners protested violently in the streets. The assassinations of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities and a Christian, are also believed to be connected to their opposition to the blasphemy law. Bibi has spoken out about the heavy toll her blasphemy accusation has taken on her family as they carve out a new life in Canada as refugees. Her daughters in particular suffered from not being able to attend school.
More recently, a violent mob ransacked and burned a Hindu temple when an 8-year-old Hindu boy was released on bail after a blasphemy charge alleged he urinated in a madrassah library.
–Isabella Meibauer is a freelance writer with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. She holds a degree in religion from The King’s College in New York City.