Pakistan Blasphemy Law Continues to Victimise Christians and Others

Release International reports from Pakistan:

A Pakistan Christian has received death threats for blasphemy after speaking out against the assassination of a government minister, himself killed for opposing the blasphemy laws. This latest death threat ratchets up the risk to Christians in Pakistan, where militants regard even questioning the blasphemy laws as blasphemous.

36-year-old Arif Ferguson and his entire family have had to go into hiding, following death threats by the Pakistan Taliban and others.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for killing Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, describing him as a blasphemer of Mohammed. The same group is now threatening to kill Arif Ferguson.

This is, of course, just one incident among many in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws and blasphemy accusations regularly lead to state repression and vigilante violence. Just a few days ago, the Express Tribune reported that

Shahdara police have arrested a Christian man after a charged mob blocked GT Road for three hours demanding that he be booked in a blasphemy case for burning pages of the Holy Quran.

The police registered an FIR under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code against Khurram Masih on the complaint of Zulfiqar Ali and arrested him on Monday night. Masih was produced before a judicial magistrate on Wednesday and remanded in judicial custody.

A mob of about a thousand people wielding sticks took to GT Road at Shahdara Chowk and blocked traffic with burning tyres on both sides of the road.

Being left to the mob or taken into custody can be equally dangerous; in September it was also reported that

A Christian man accused of blasphemy died in a Pakistani prison on Sept. 9, the International Christian Concern announced Tuesday.

Aslam Masih died of a “treatable disease” after officials denied him proper medical care, ICC reported.

He had reportedly died of Dengue virus, an infectious tropical disease.

…Masih was reportedly arrested in 2010 after having been accused of blasphemy by two members of the Tablighi Jammat, an Islamic missionary group.

…The incident added to a row of deaths and arrests related to the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. According to ICC, another Christian man, Qamar David, died in the Pakistani prison in March. Though the authorities cited a heart attack as an official cause, it is believed that he might have been murdered, according to ICC.

In some cases, blasphemy accusations are levelled against a Christian business rival or in relation to a private dispute. Other cases, however, reveal anti-Christian animus or even a Salem-like hysteria at work; in September it was reported that a 13-year-old Christian schoolgirl and her family had gone into hiding over a spelling mistake:

[She] was sitting an Urdu exam which involved a poem about the prophet Muhammad when she dropped a dot on the Urdu word naat (a devotional hymn to the prophet), accidentally turning it into lanaat, or damnation. Spotting the error, her teacher scolded her, beat her and reported the matter to the principal. The news soon flamed through her community in Havelian, 30 miles north of Islamabad.

Mullahs raged against Bhatti in their sermons; a school inquiry was hastily convened to examine the matter. Bhatti was expelled; her mother, a government nurse, was banished to another town, and the family has since fled Havelian in fear of their lives. All over a missing dot.

However, Christians are not the only victims of blasphemy accusations; last month it was reported that

An Ahmadi student from Lahore (Punjab) was expelled from her university in her senior after she was accused of blasphemy. Students affiliated with Tahaffuz-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwwat (TKN) accused Rabia Saleem of ripping up a poster with anti-Ahmadi content.

…TKN-affiliated students announced that “Ahmadi students would not be allowed” on campus, and that anybody who tried to resist them would be killed. The university and the education ministry reacted to the threat with total silence.

Inevitably, accusations are also now even deployed opportunistically against mainstream Muslims; at the weekend the Express Tribune reported that

Complainant Hafiz Ghulam Hasan, the prayer leader at Jasmia Masjid Chiragh Din, Hundal village, has accused Amjad alias Haji Toka and his wife Samreena in a complaint filed at the Saddar police station of blaspheming about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).

…Saddar police station house officer, Inspector Hameedullah, told The Express Tribune the suspects were sent to a prison on a judicial remand to avoid an untoward incident that could have occurred had they been held at the police station.

He said an investigation into the incident had revealed that the complainant and several other villagers had obtained loans from the suspects and defaulted on repayment. He said Hafiz Hasan had recently leased a motorcycle from Amjad’s business.

Islamists organised a national strike in defence of the blasphemy laws at the end of last year; the New York Times noted commentary from Mehdi Hasan of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan:

“I call it a natural result of religious extremism that is on the rise in Pakistani society… The liberal and democratic forces in the country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by the religious extremists.”

Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was murdered a short time after this, and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti two months after that; both had criticised the blasphemy laws and defended the Christian Asia Bibi, who remains on death row following a blasphemy conviction (and even she were to be freed, she risks being murdered). The Muslim judge who sentenced Taseer’s killer to death has reportedly fled to Saudi Arabia with his family, although there is some dispute over whether this is correct or whether he has gone there on hajj.

The appointment of Sherry Rehman as the new ambassador to the USA also highlights how difficult it is to change the law; Tom Wright at the Wall Street Journal reports:

…Ms. Rehman… has been in the spotlight in recent months for her championing of efforts to overturn Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which sanction the death penalty for people found guilty of blasphemy against Muhammad, Islam’s holy prophet. For a while this year, she went into hiding after receiving death threats for her plans to bring legislation to parliament to amend the laws. She later withdrew her amendments, which [Mohammad Waseem, a professor of political sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences] said happened under pressure from the government as it was fearful of stirring up protests from Islamist groups.

Yesterday, Wright reported that the International Crisis Group in Brussels has published a report with recommendations for curtailing Islamist power:

The problem is that few in Pakistan are listening.

To an outsider, the report’s recommendations seem common sense: regulate better the network of “madrassas,” or religious schools, these parties run; prosecute people for speeches that incite violence against religious minorities; require Islamist parties to disband their militant wings; and, most importantly, work to repeal the blasphemy law and other legislation that discriminates against non-Muslims.

But Pakistan’s secular political parties, including the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, remain cowed by what they view as the power of the Islamist parties to wreak havoc through violent protests across the country in defense of their religious prerogatives.