On July 13, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission warned that two Christian men from Pakistan’s Punjab province, Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel, were in danger after their arrest on frivolous charges of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.
Five days later, suspected Islamist extremists shot them dead outside a courthouse, reports the U.S.-based Compass Direct News (July 19). Reports of murder, rape, arson, abduction and forced conversion of Christians are routine in Pakistan, an Islamic republic. According to Pakistan’s Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), Christian persecution increased after the U.S. military’s Operation Enduring Freedom in neighboring Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, even though Pakistan is an ally of the U.S. in its “global war on terror.”
Last year, at least nine Christians were killed and over 45 houses were burned in a Christian hamlet in Korian village near Gojra town in central Punjab on July 31. The attackers, masked and carrying sophisticated guns, were supposedly from an Islamist militant outfit known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, linked to the Afghan Taliban. Its offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is believed to be al-Qaeda’s front in Pakistan. The 2010 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also noted that thousands of religious schools reportedly continue to provide ideological training and motivation to those who take part in violence targeting religious minorities.
Human rights groups see Pakistan’s blasphemy law as the main instrument of persecution—not only of Christians, but also Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Hindus. Of the total population of 170 million, around three million are Christians, mainly concentrated in Islamabad, the Capital Territory, and Punjab and Sindh provinces. Over 96 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim—more than 80 percent of them Sunni, mostly Barelvis and Deobandis.
The blasphemy law, Section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, carries a death penalty. None has ever been executed under it, but about 10 accused have been murdered before the completion of their trials, according to the BBC. Islamist extremists believe that killing a blasphemous person earns a heavenly reward. An extreme Islamist killed a judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatii, in 1997 for acquitting three Christians in a blasphemy case two years earlier.
In May 1998, a Catholic bishop, John Joseph, shot himself outside a courthouse to protest the blasphemy law. However, CLAAS notes that allegations of blasphemy often “stem from the Muslim accuser’s desire to take revenge” and to “settle petty, personal disputes.” There is no law to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. And Islamist extremists are ready to back blasphemy cases. The prevalent political turmoil, corruption and resultant impunity in Pakistan make extra-judicial “punishment” easier.
Pakistan’s politics is in crisis. It is often debated who is in control— right-leaning military and the intelligence agency ISI or the more progressive government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, a Shi’a Muslim in a Sunni majority country. The apparent agenda of the former is to create or allow unrest in the country as the only means to remain relevant, for their predominance is under threat ever since military rule ended. Regrettably, the unprecedented growth of extremism, reflected in routine bomb explosions and the gunning down of minorities, suggests that they are far stronger than the government.
This is why Zardari’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, has not been able to revoke the blasphemy law, as it had vowed to do in its election manifesto. Unless and until the tables turn, peace may remain a distant dream.
— By Vishal Arora, a New Delhi-based journalist