The head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan has lambasted a court for passing the death sentence on a Christian man found guilty of blasphemy in connection with one of the worst atrocities against minorities in the country’s history.

Bishop Samson Shukardin, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, described as “very, very painful” the judgement handed down in the case of Ehsan Shan.

The Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court found Mr Ehsan guilty of blasphemy by allegedly sharing content deemed insulting to Islam and its prophet on social media.

Mr Shan, a man from Sahiwal in his early 20s, was not accused of desecrating the Qur’an but of reposting an image of the damaged sacred text.

Reports of the defiled script triggered a day of violence last August against Christians in Jaranwala, Punjab province, where more than 25 churches were torched and more than 80 Christian homes ransacked.

Sentenced under numerous articles of the Pakistan Penal Code, Mr Shan was also sentenced to 22 years’ “rigorous imprisonment” and fined 1 million Pakistan Rupees (EUR €3,350).

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Shukardin, chair of the Catholic Church’s National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), said: “This decision is very, very painful for us. Many people are disappointed.”

He called on the international community to appeal for justice: “International NGOs and human rights organisations should come out and say something opposing this decision. This will make a big impact on the government.”

Father Khalid Rashid, NCJP director for Faisalabad diocese, told ACN: “Mr Shan shared the image with one person but the image was shared by thousands upon thousands of people, including officials such as members of the police and the government.

“Mr Shan is being singled out. He is being targeted. We condemn this judgement.”

“He is innocent because he is not well educated. He is from a very poor family.

“Sometimes people do not understand these things – he had no idea that by sharing this content it would be considered harmful.

“During those days, after last August’s Jaranwala atrocity,  everybody shared the news.”

Father Rashid said the anti-terrorism court in Sahiwal came under pressure to return a guilty verdict.

He said: “It is because of terrorists, extremists and other fundamental groups that this ruling was given.

“These groups threatened the judge and this is why the judge gave this kind of judgement.”

The priest said the court rushed the decision, stating this was a sign of undue pressure. Father Rashid said he and advocates he is working closely with will take the case to appeal at Lahore High Court.

Sahiwal Anti-Terrorism Court’s judgement against Mr Shan comes amid evidence of worsening persecution against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan.

August 2023’s mass-torching of churches in Jaranwala’s district sparked threats of violence against Christians in the Punjab city of Sargodha where last May a mob of thousands went on the rampage, again in response to a blasphemy allegation.

They lynched 73-year-old grandfather Nazir Gill Masih, from Sargodha, who later died from his injuries.

By that point, terrified Christians from Sargodha had fled the city en masse.

Bishop Shukardin said: “Minorities are suffering more and more. Minorities are scared and not feeling comfortable. They are scared to speak up in public.”

He said that Muslims are also accused of blasphemy but what makes such allegations so much worse for Christians is that when claims are made against them it is not just individuals who are targeted but their families and entire communities.

Bishop Shukardin also stressed that, in contrast to the case brought against Mr Shan, there have been no convictions against those implicated in the attacks against Christians in Sargodha and Jaranwala.

He said: “One of our Christians is given a death sentence which is unjust and yet nothing has happened to those others accused of crimes against the churches and the Christian houses. Instead, these people are slowly being released.”