Posts Tagged ‘ Christians in Pakistan ’

Is Pakistan’s Hard Line on Blasphemy Softening?

By William Dalrymple for The Guardian

It is rare these days to read any good news coming out of Pakistan. It is rarer still to read good news concerning matters of religion. However, in one week two stories seem to show that Pakistan is for once bringing the force of law to bear on those who abuse religion to provoke violence against minorities.

Last Sunday Mohammed Khalid Chisti, the mullah who had accused a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, of blasphemy, was himself arrested and charged with the same law. The turnaround took place after the muezzin of his mosque gave evidence that he had framed the girl and falsified evidence. More remarkable still, the far-from- moderate All Pakistan Ulema Council came to Rimsha’s defence, calling her “a daughter of the nation” and denouncing Chisthi: “Our heads are bowed with shame for what he did.”

On Tuesday an even more unexpected event took place. Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Sunni terrorist group Lashkar–e-Jhangvi, which is accused of killing hundreds of Shias, was arrested on his return from a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia. Lashkar operates quite openly in Lahore despite being officially banned; yet on this occasion Ishaq was immediately brought to court. There he was accused of involvement in more than 40 cases in which 70 people have been killed. He now resides in Kot Lakhpat jail on 14-day judicial remand.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims, its clean-shaven, tweed-jacketed, spats-wearing and pork-eating founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made sure the constitution of his new country provided the right for all its citizens to profess, practise and propagate their religion: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed,” he said in his first address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on August 11 1947. “That has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense, for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in the political sense as citizens of one state.”

It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who started the rot. In 1974 he bowed to pressure from the religious right and had the country’s small Ahmedi minority declared non-Muslim. The situation became worse still in the 1980s with the military coup of General Zia. Zia was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Islamic radicals as part of state policy. At the same time Zia started tinkering with the law. He introduced the Islamic punishment of amputation for theft, and established the Hudood ordinances of sharia law, which asserted that the evidence of one man was equal to that of two women, and made any sex outside marriage a punishable offence for women. Rape was to be punished with the public flogging of the female victim as well as the perpetrator.

Between 1982 and 1986 Zia introduced radical changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – the notorious sections 295 B and C of the penal code – prescribing life imprisonment for anyone who defiles a copy of the Qur’an and death for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. Because there is no strict definition of blasphemy, and virtually no evidence above the word of the accuser is needed to bring a guilty verdict, the laws have often been exploited by individuals with grudges against innocent non-Muslims. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide to protest against the laws; and although no one has yet been executed under the statutes, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have been filed. The number of cases has multiplied in recent years, and the result is often prison sentences of three years or more.

Christians are widely derided in Pakistan; most are descended from “untouchable” converts who still perform the most menial tasks: cleaning the sewers and sweeping the streets. There has been a steady stream of attacks on the community, most bloodily in the murder of 16 Christians at a church in Bahawalpur in 2001. But it is not just Christians who have suffered. Hysteria about blasphemy has also been used to target Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shias. In addition to formal convictions, there were at least 34 extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslim, 16 Christians, two Ahmadis and a Hindu. Indeed it is the Shias, not the Christians, who have suffered the brunt of the violence meted out by Lashkar–e-Jhangvi.

The high-water mark for religious intolerance in Pakistan was reached last year when the former governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the only Christian minister in the government, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both shot dead for suggesting that the blasphemy laws should be reviewed. Last week’s turnaround seems to represent a dawning realisation that things had gone too far – that a descent into mob violence was imminent. “There has been some genuine remorse on the right,” Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir told me. “They realised a line had been crossed.”

This is certainly good news, but it is only a beginning. Rishma remains in custody and Malik Ishaq has yet to be convicted. “I am not optimistic that the laws will be repealed,” says Jahangir. “In fact, you cannot even discuss it.” While politicians such as Imran Khan have bravely called Rishma’s arrest “shameful … against the very spirit of Islam”, neither he nor any other major political figure has called for an outright repeal of the blasphemy laws. Nor, given the fate of Salman Taseer, are they likely to any time soon.

And as long as the laws remain on the statute books, cases like these will continue to occur, and major injustices will continue to be perpetrated on all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

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Pakistan Minister ‘Hopeful’ For Blasphemy Girl Bail

As Reported by The Associated Press

A Pakistani cabinet minister says he is “very hopeful” a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy will be released on bail later this week after spending more than three weeks in custody.

Rimsha Masih is currently on remand in the high-security Adiyala jail in Islamabad’s twin city Rawalpindi after being arrested on August 16 for allegedly burning pages containing verses from the Koran.

She is “uneducated” and has a mental age of less than 14, according to a medical report, and her case has prompted international concern and anger from rights campaigners.

Proceedings to free Rimsha on bail have been repeatedly postponed, most recently on Monday when Judge Muhammad Azam Khan again adjourned the matter after the lawyer for her accuser asked for a stay to show solidarity with a provincial lawyers’ strike.

Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony told AFP in an interview on Monday he was optimistic the youngster would be released at the next hearing, on Friday.

“Unfortunately there was strike of the lawyers and that was a technical problem and it was not possible to proceed (with) the hearing,” he said.
“On the 7th we are very hopeful that she would be released.”

The case took an unexpected twist on Saturday when the imam who first gave police evidence against Rimsha was accused by his deputy of adding pages from the Koran to the burnt papers taken from Rimsha.

Activists say legislation is often abused to settle personal vendettas, and even unproven allegations can prompt a violent public response.
But it is rare to see anyone investigated for making a false allegation or interfering with evidence of blasphemy and Bhatti said it could be an important turning point.

“The disclosure about the tampering with the evidence will discourage future accusers to misuse this law,” Bhatti said.
Bhatti is Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister. His brother and predecessor Shahbaz was gunned down last year for speaking out against the blasphemy law.

Uniting Pakistan’s Minority and Majority

By Mohsin Hamid for The Express Tribune

There’s a nurse I know in Lahore. She’s tall and stocky, middle-aged. She is on call 24 hours a day and works six days a week. She’s also a freelance headhunter, placing cooks and drivers and maids. She sleeps little. She has five children she hopes to give better lives. Last year, she donated time and money to flood victims.

She is a Pakistani Christian. And on Wednesday, I saw her weep.

She was staring at a TV set. It was reporting the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities, a Roman Catholic. “What’s going to happen to Christians in this country?” she asked me.

I had no answer. But her question is searingly important. A country should be judged by how it treats its minorities. To the extent it protects them, it stands for the ennobling values of empathy and compassion, for justice rooted, not in might, but in human equality, and for civilisation instead of savagery.

Pakistan ought to be exemplary in this regard. After all, ours is a nation of minorities: A patchwork of cultures, ethnicities, languages and sects. Since independence, we’ve tried to use Islam to bind us together, to undo our inherent and pervasive minority-ness. After the country split in 1971, these appeals to religion expanded under ZA Bhutto and reached previously unimaginable extents under Ziaul Haq. They have continued to intensify ever since.

One problem with this approach, of course, has been that our religious minorities, a twentieth of our population, have been left out of our grand national narratives. Five per cent may seem like a small proportion, but in absolute numbers it includes almost 10 million Pakistanis, which equals everyone in Tunisia, or one-and-half times all of Libya. If Pakistan’s religious minorities were a country, they would be more populous than half the members of the UN.

So how have they been treated by Pakistan? Shamefully. They are looked down upon, discriminated against, physically threatened and not infrequently killed. They are second-class citizens in every sense. Nor has our state offered them much support. Indeed, our state has been actively involved in their oppression.

None of this is new, of course. So, for those of us fortunate enough to belong to the religious majority, does it even matter?

Yes. Desperately. Minority relations are a microcosm of society. Each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one. And, as Pakistan becomes a country at war with its minorities, it is becoming a country at war with its individuals, with itself, with you and with me, with the human desire to be allowed to believe what we believe. In this direction lies Orwellian Newspeak, an inability to say what we mean, a condition of external dishonesty that inevitably leads to internal dishonesty. Orwell imagined the result of this to be something he called doublethink: People holding “simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”

I find it difficult to imagine a better description of many of our TV talk show hosts — or much of our public discourse — today.

There are three main political positions we hear over and over in Pakistan, and all three are suffused with doublethink. There is the national security position: ‘America is our enemy; America should give us more aid.’ The privileged liberal position: ‘There should be equal rights for all; I should not have to share my riches with the poor.’ And the (remarkably similar) ambitious cleric position: ‘Religion makes us all equal; only I decide what religion says.’

It is unsurprising that the privileged liberal position is the one most often associated with attempts to protect the rights of religious minorities in our country. It is also unsurprising that it has been largely unpersuasive.

The good news, from a religious minority standpoint, is that the other positions are equally incoherent. (The bad news is that they are much more willing to resort to violence in support of their arguments.)

What Pakistan’s religious minorities need, therefore, is a new position, a position that champions equality while, and this is the tricky part, also championing equality. In other words, a position that dispenses with the illusion that equality can be enhanced in a society prostrate before either its rich or its clerics.

Such a position would also be to the benefit of the country’s economic majority, its poor. For they, too, are looked down upon, discriminated against, physically threatened and not infrequently killed. They, too, are second-class citizens. They, too, have been actively oppressed by our state.

At its heart, our country’s toxic treatment of its religious minorities is intertwined with its toxic treatment of its impoverished majority. Both groups suffer from the denial of our common humanity. And that, paradoxically, offers great hope. For we can reject false dichotomies between our clerical and our liberal positions, between our minorities and our majority. We can begin the search for common ground that has eluded us as a nation thus far.

We might, for example, shift from disputes over blasphemy laws to actually delivering due process of law, from arguments over curbing radical madrassas to actually building a high-quality state education system, from alternately buying off and fighting tribal chieftains to actually empowering local tribespeople.

Our problems are not insurmountable. Pakistan is, simply put, a land that mistreats its minorities and its majority. It is ripe for a revolution, except that it already has many trappings of democracy: Elected assemblies, free media, independent judges. A revolution in our thinking and behaviour, brought about by sustained pressure from below, is what is really called for.

Let us be clear: The messy but effective compromises we require can only come about through the dramatically improved functioning of our democracy. But a better-functioning democracy is feared by many with vested interests who benefit from the impaired system we currently have. They must be convinced otherwise.

Above all, we must convince our powerful national security state. Rationally, it is clear that under our current policies, Pakistan is becoming ever less secure. The stability and growth that a well-functioning democracy could bring is our country’s best chance of escaping from its ‘eagerly-dependent-on-enemy-America’ strategic incoherence. Unless, that is, our national security doublethink really boils down to this: ‘I will protect you; you are the threat.’

For the sake of our vulnerable, which is to say, in different ways, just about all of us, I hope this is not the case. Too much Pakistani blood has already been shed and too many Pakistanis have already gone to bed hungry.

Pakistan: Yet another Christian accused of blasphemy

By Speroforum for Spero News

A Christian woman, Agnes Nuggo, was accused of blasphemy and arrested in the Diocese of Faisalabad, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. The Catholic Church, which is handling the case, expressed “extreme concern”  over the affair.

The Commission for Justice and Peace in the diocese reported that Agnes (50) is married to Bashir Masih, has children and lives in the Christian quarter of Waris Pura. She was accused of blasphemy after a dispute over a piece of land that had already created controversy with his relatives. Some Muslim neighbours accused her of having made insulting statements against the Prophet Mohammed and against Islam. On 16 February, the local police registered a FIR (First Information Report) pursuant to art. 295/a of the Criminal Code and arrested her. Agnes professes her innocence and says the accusations are completely fabricated.

Fr. Nisar Barkat, Director of the Justice and Peace Commission in Faisalabad, reported “Bishop Joseph Coutts has become aware of the case and asked me to follow it closely.” Fr. Nisar was in court and obtained a copy of the complaint against Agnes, who will have her first court hearing in two weeks. The church will find her a lawyer and will take care of her family.

According to some sisters who know Agnes personally “the case is quite complicated: the woman was lured into a trap. Some people wanted to take revenge on her, because in the past Agnes had agreed to testify in court for money.””

Fr. Pascal Paulus, a Dominican priest in the Waris Pura area, said that “the situation is critical for us Christians. We need to be very careful. The Islamic radicals want to exploit these cases to attack the Christian minorities. We are exposed to spurious attacks, which have already been happening.”

Asia Bibi, another Christian woman accused of blasphemy, has been imprisoned for several months and has been condemend to death under Islamic law, Haroon Barket Masih of the Masihi Foundation said of Nuggo, “She is a new Asia Bibi. Agnes’ case is one of many cases of persecution that continue to occur. Most of the episodes don’t leave a trace and do not reach the clamour of the spotlight. Only when the victims’ families trust in the Churches, foundations and NGOs, then the injustices come to light. Families often keep silent for fear of retaliation. And institutions are absent: in this situation, what can Christians do?”

Rosemary Noel, head of the Pakistan Catholic Women’s Organisation said, “Being a Christian woman in Pakistan is a dual challenge. Even the status of women is itself exposed to discrimination, violence and abuse. Women struggle to gain access to education and the world of work. Those Christians are doubly discriminated against. They are considered as objects by Muslims and suffer all sorts of abuse and injustice to general indifference.”

According to data provided by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Pakistani Bishops, including Agnes, there have been 16 Christian women accused and imprisoned between 1987 and 2010 (in addition to a Muslim woman and a Hindu), but many other cases escape inclusion, because they did not end with a formal complaint.

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