Dozens of Pakistani Christians on trial for lynching two men they suspected of the double bombing of two churches in March 2015 were reportedly told by the public prosecutor they would be acquitted of all charges - if they converted to Islam.
David Nixon, whose 37-year-old son Sunil is among the 42 individuals on trial, told persecution watchdog World Watch Monitor that "On March 27, when we were coming out of the court after attending the hearing, the Deputy District Public Prosecutor (DDPP) offered to acquit all 42 suspects if they converted to Islam".
The outlet reports that Justice Sajjad Ahmed is hearing the lynching case against the 42 Pakistanis in an Anti-Terrorism Court in Lahore. The incident stems back to 2015, when neighboring churches in the Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad in Lahore, Punjab were simultaneously targeted by suicide bombers who tried to enter their Sunday services.
The attacks claimed at least 17 lives, and injured 80; more deaths were prevented by volunteer church guards who tackled the bombers. Shortly after, hundreds of terrified worshippers streamed out in panic, and an angry crowd set upon two men already detained by the police at the scene, and lynched them to death.
Police arrested over 500 in connection with the lynching; of those, 84 were eventually detained on charges of murder and terrorism, and 42 were acquitted in summer 2016.
On the top prime TV news channel show "Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath", the Special Assistant to the Chief Minister of Punjab, Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan, condemned the offer of acquittal, referring to it as a "shameful" and "heinous crime."
"The government is not in the picture because we were not informed by anyone," he said. "But a full enquiry will be conducted. We are all set to end the "extremist mindset and steer the country to a tolerant and moderate society. Therefore, we cannot tolerate anyone in the government machinery with this mindset".
Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabad, who chairs the Catholic Bishop's National Commission for Justice and Peace also condemned "pressurizing" Christian prisoners. "Justice must be done according to the law. Nobody has authority to give such offers if they were really made," he said, according to Vatican News.
The Deputy District Public Prosecutor (DDPP) Syed Anees Shah has denied the charge, but he has been removed from office until he faces an inquiry.
Forced conversions to Islam are anything but uncommon Pakistan, and Christians, who make up just 1.6 per cent of the population, are frequently targeted. Vatican News notes that the country's human rights organizations estimate that about a thousand Hindu and Christian women are forced to convert to marry Muslim men each year.
In November, Pakistan's Sidh province adopted a bill to prevent forced religious conversions following criticism over protection of minorities in the country.
"Forced conversion is an abhorrent and violent offense and an issue that has become prevalent across Sindh [that] must be eliminated by recognizing the importance of tolerance, peace and respect for all religions and persons, irrespective of their religion," read the bill, in part.
"It is necessary to criminalize forced conversions and provide protection for those who are victims of this abhorrent practice."
However, the bill was withdrawn following an outcry from Islamic religious groups.