Church property up for grabs as fraudsters exploit internal rifts

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Lahore: This is very unfortunate that Pakistani clergy is found in selling church propterties with some other criminal elememnts. According to Newsday Pakistan  a recent case regarding the attempted sale of a precious property in Lahore on forged documents has revealed how fissures in the various church denominations in Pakistan are being exploited by criminal elements and some members of the clergy for huge monetary gains.

The phenomenon of selling church property to unsuspecting buyers, mostly from the majority Muslim community, surfaced after a Christian lawyer notorious for defrauding and blackmailing people and various church bodies was arrested on July 17, for trying to sell prime commercial land in Lahore to a local businessman.

According to information, Advocate Aneel Ashiq Chaudhry prepared forged documents of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan (PCP) allegedly in connivance with former PCP moderator Pastor Ajmal Khan to sell prime land measuring over 28 kanals located on Ferozepur Road.

On July 17, a local Muslim businessman named Sarfaraz Ahmed Ghumman filed an FIR [First Information Report] No. 699/17 under sections 420, 468, 471, and 506-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) against Aneel Ashiq for defrauding him of Rs 8.5 million taken as earnest money against a total sum of Rs 400 million in February this year.

Mr Ghumman claimed in the FIR that Aneel Ashiq posed himself as the coordinator and special attorney of the PCP empowered with selling church property.

“I was introduced to the fraudster by an acquaintance. We then started meeting each other at the United Christian Hospital (UCH) canteen on a regular basis. It was there that he talked me into buying the Doongi Ground, Ferozepur Road, land near PCSIR on a price that was relatively lower than the current market rate. I paid him Rs 8.5 million in cash as earnest money and gave two cheques of Rs 80.15 million at the time of the agreement with an assurance that the remaining sum would be paid after the property was registered in my name,” he stated in the FIR.

He added that when he started pressing the lawyer for closing the deal so that he could take possession of the land, Aneel Ashiq started using delay tactics.

“I then contacted Rev Javed Gill of the PCP Properties Committee to enquire about the delay but he informed me that the church organisation had no connection with Aneel Ashiq and that the lawyer headed a land mafia which is notorious for selling church and private properties on forged documents across Punjab. I then approached Aneel Ashiq and demanded the return of my money and the two cheques that I had given him as advance payment but he refused, threatening to kill me if I demanded my money back,” he stated.

Talking to Newsday Pakistan, PCP Executive Secretary Major (r) Javed Rehmatullah said that the land was actually owned by the Presbyterian Church USA and they had sold it to Khawaja Naeem, a close relative of Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, in 1998. “As per my information, Khawaja Naeem had made partial payment to the church at the time of the deal and subsequently cleared the agreed amount of Rs 30 million some years ago. I am not aware of the current legal status of ownership of the said property,” he said.

“PCP does not own the property even though we are the legal successors of PC USA. The fraudsters simply misused our name to con the buyer. As per our agreement with PC USA, PCP is entitled to 33 per cent share from proceeds of any unwanted property that PC USA wants to dispose off. That’s the only stake we have in PC USA-owned property in Pakistan,” he said.

Khawaja Naeem was unavailable for comment.

Following the registration of a case against Aneel Ashiq by the Gulberg Police, the Lahore police chief, Capt (r) Amin Vaince ordered the Model Town Division Superintendent of Police Ismail Kharak to arrest the accused and recover Mr Ghumman’s money.

The police managed to arrest the accused after tracking his cell phone and recovered Rs 2.5 million in cash and the two cheques from his possession. Further investigation is underway.

Mr Ghumman told Newsday Pakistan on Wednesday that Aneel Ashiq had returned some money and had also given him post-dated cheques to settle the issue. “It is now up to the police to pursue the case according to the law. I’m just glad that my money has been recovered from that fraudster,” he said.

‘CAREER CRIMINAL’

Talking to Newsday Pakistan, various church leaders spoke of how a group of blackmailers led by Aneel Ashiq and Ajmal Khan and others had been targeting both the Catholic and Protestant church bodies over the years for grabbing prime properties in Lahore and other cities of the Punjab province.

National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP) Executive Secretary Victor Azariah said that the Aneel Ashiq gang had made repeated attempts to grab church property belonging to various denominations over the years.

“He is a constant pain in the neck for the Christian community of Lahore,” said Mr Azariah, who is also the acting chairman of the UCH Board of Governors.

“Aneel Ashiq took illegal possession of a doctor’s house and the hospital’s canteen last year and since then he has been causing trouble for the management by instigating the employees and creating a law and order situation inside the premises. These tactics are a prelude to his objective of selling the property, in pieces, on forged documents.

“I admit that UCH is in poor financial health but there is absolutely no truth in rumours that the board has decided to lease it to some private party. It’s true that the hospital obtained Rs 10 million from Shinwari Traders to clear outstanding salaries and utility bills pending for a long time but reports that the hospital has been leased out to the private company are untrue,” he said.

“This was propaganda by Aneel Ashiq and other members of the group. Fact is that I took a rather bold step by asking for Rs 10 million as earnest money from Shinwari Traders in return for considering a proposal of a joint venture at the hospital without the approval of the board but bold actions are needed in dire situations.

“If I had not taken the money to clear the dues, Aneel Ashiq would have continued to manipulate the employees against the management, rendering all efforts to revive the hospital futile. The money will be returned to Shinwari Traders if the board does not agree to a joint venture with the company,” he said, however quickly adding that raising Rs 10 million would be difficult in case the UCH board does not approve the proposal.

Mr Azariah said that Aneel Ashiq had previously attempted to grab land owned by the Raiwind Diocese of the Anglican Church of Pakistan.

“Some years ago, Aneel Ashiq managed to somehow convince then Raiwind Bishop Samuel Azariah to give him details of the property owned by the diocese in Raiwind city. Bishop Azariah shared the details under the impression that Aneel Ashiq would ‘protect’ the property from land grabbers but it later turned out that he had used the information to prepare fake property documents. When this matter came into my notice I immediately took action and scuttled Aneel Ashiq’s attempt to grab church land,” he said.

Commenting on the case, Presbyterian Church of Pakistan (PCP) Moderator Reverend Dr Majeed Abel said that it was unfortunate that criminal elements like Ajmal Khan and Aneel Ashiq were targeting church properties with immunity.

“PCP is strictly against the sale or lease of any Presbyterian-owned property or church institution. We believe in strengthening of institutions but some black sheep in the community are hell bent on weakening the church with such actions. In this particular case, although the PCP is not the owner of the specific property, we moved an application with the police against the misrepresentation of the registered church body by Aneel Ashiq and his gang. I hope that this case will help the Christian community in identifying the criminal elements within the community and to be aware of their illegal actions,” he said.

He said that Ajmal Khan used to be the moderator of PCP in 1997. “Ajmal had access to registered deeds of church land but since his ouster from office he has been involved in selling off church property illegally,” he said, adding that they were fighting several such cases in courts.

Commenting on rumours about the alleged lease of the United Christian Hospital (UCH) to a Peshawar-based company Shinwari Traders, the PCP top office-bearer said that the Presbyterian church would oppose tooth and nail the sale or lease of the institution, located in Lahore’s prime commercial area of Gulberg.

“We have been hearing similar reports but let me categorically make it clear that the PCP will not allow handing over of Christian institutions to any person or body without consensus of all church bodies. Our stance is very clear in this regard. UCH is in a deplorable state but that doesn’t mean that we should simply dispose it off. It’s about time that the entire church leadership gives a serious thought to salvage the hospital’s lost glory,” he said.

Pastor Ajmal Khan, the man accused of masterminding the sale of church properties, remained unavailable for comment.

Talking to Newsday Pakistan, Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Sebastian Shaw said that Aneel Ashiq “is a career criminal with a long history of illegally grabbing church properties”.

“In 2003, Aneel Ashiq prepared forged documents claiming that the church had sold him a piece of land located on Multan Road for a total of Rs 100 million of which he had allegedly paid Rs 40 million in advance. The sale deed carried fake signatures of the then Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence Saldanha and Caritas Director Raymond Rossario.

“He then started blackmailing us to ‘return the Rs 40 million’ or hand him possession of the land. The church refused to succumb to his blackmail. He then registered a case against Bishop Saldanha, Mr Rossario and nine others, including myself, even though I wasn’t even a part of the Lahore diocese at that time. I was among the people who were taken into police custody in that case.

“During investigation, police found out that the entire case was based on forged documents and a forensic examination of the signatures on the alleged sale deed also proved our stance,” he said, adding that the church then filed a defamation suit against Aneel Ashiq. He did not say why the Catholic church chose to file a civil case instead of seeking criminal proceedings against the criminal-lawyer.

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