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Pakistani blasphemy law key factor in attacks against Christian minority

By David Pinault
Catholic Online

NEW YORK ( America ) – Gambling often produces sore losers. This past November, in the town of Sangla Hill in Pakistan ’s Punjab Province , it served as the trigger for something worse: religious riots and violence against members of Pakistan ’s minority Christian population.

Yousuf Masih, a 40-year-old Christian, won several thousand rupees playing cards with a Muslim neighbor. The angry loser retaliated by filing an allegation with the local police that Masih had set fire to a copy of the Koran – a punishable offense under Pakistani law. Within hours, rumors that a Christian had insulted the Islamic scripture were circulating throughout town. Local Muslim clerics used mosque loudspeakers to call on the faithful to avenge the insult.

The result: the next day, Nov. 12, 2005, a mob of more than 2,500 men (some from Sangla Hill, others from nearby Punjabi villages) attacked buildings belonging to the town’s minority Christian community. They set fire to three churches and vandalized a Catholic convent and a Christian elementary school. Local Christian families were forced to flee or go into hiding. Police did nothing to restrain the violence – but they did arrest the luckless Christian card-player Yousuf Masih.

When I visited the Punjabi city of Lahore in December, local Christians showed me photographs of the destruction at Sangla Hill: a marble altar smashed to rubble, a tabernacle lying dented on the ground, a statue of the Virgin Mary that rioters had defaced with hammers. I was also shown a copy of a letter of protest dated Nov. 14 that had been sent to Pakistan ’s President Pevez Musharraf immediately after the violence in Sangla Hill. Signed by prominent Pakistani Catholic and Protestant church leaders, the letter identified a salient factor in the recurrent violence against the country’s religious minorities in recent years: Ordinance 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code.

The blasphemy law

Ordinance 295 – commonly referred to as the blasphemy law – dates back to the 1980s and the reign of the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq. Zia sought to legitimize his dictatorship by indulging the fundamentalist-minded mullahs of Pakistan ’s various religious parties. Ordinance 295 gave them what they wanted.

The law’s roots go back to the colonial era: the British Indian Penal Code provided two years’ jail time for persons convicted of religious insults or acts of desecration against any faith whatsoever.

Zia’s regime updated this legislation by adding provisions designed specifically to “safeguard” Islam. Section 295-B of Zia’s law mandates life imprisonment for desecration of the Koran. Section 295-C goes further: it stipulates the death penalty for anyone who defames or insults the Prophet Muhammad.

A progressive-minded legislator from Pakistan ’s National Assembly whom I interviewed in Islamabad listed what he called “three substantive legal problems” with Ordinance 295. First, no evidence is required when filing a blasphemy complaint. The word of anyone claiming to be a witness is enough. Second, the alleged blasphemer is arrested and imprisoned as soon as the complaint is lodged. Defendants often remain in jail for months awaiting trial. Third, plaintiffs can make false accusations with little worry of punishment or any other legal repercussion.

This third factor is especially important in light of recent data assembled by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human-rights advocacy group established in 1985 by Pakistan ’s Catholic Bishops Conference. The commission demonstrated that in more than 100 cases in which defendants in recent blasphemy trials had been found innocent, the accusers were shown by the court to have been motivated by personal grudges or hope of financial gain.

A popular law

Despite the manifest injustice associated with Ordinance 295, President Musharraf, who has evinced a commitment to protect his country’s religious minorities, has been unable to bring about the repeal of the blasphemy law. It is simply too popular. Judging from interviews with Muslims and Christians in both the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province , I would say this law is widely accepted by many Muslims – especially in rural areas – because it is seen as a useful weapon for the defense of Islam.

A Muslim professor in Peshawar explained to me that when rumors of blasphemy or Koran desecration circulate, many mosque preachers warn their congregations that “Islam khatar mayn hay” (“Islam is in danger”). This sense of endangerment comes from a widespread perception among Pakistani Muslims that they are a beleaguered minority.

This might be surprising, since 97 percent of Pakistan ’s population is Muslim. But it makes sense if one takes into account the feeling many Pakistanis have that they are overshadowed and threatened by neighboring India – a country that is not only much bigger than Pakistan but is also overwhelmingly Hindu. Hinduism is perceived by many Pakistani Muslims as fundamentally inimical to Islam.

For many Pakistanis, their country is protected from being swallowed up, from disappearing, by its Islamic identity, which is symbolized by reverence for the Koran and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad’s honor. Ordinance 295 is popular because it is seen as safeguarding both of these. Many fundamentalist-minded Muslims question the loyalty of Pakistani Christians and members of other non-Muslim minorities, who are often accused of serving as agents for the United States and other foreign powers.

Christians speak out

But Pakistan ’s Christian community is mobilizing to speak out collectively against sectarian discrimination and prejudice. On Dec. 20, Christians throughout the country observed a nationwide day of prayer and fasting to condemn the violence at Sangla Hill and the persecution of minorities in the name of religion. Additional nonviolent protests will continue throughout 2006 for the purpose of drawing attention to the injustice of Pakistan ’s blasphemy law.

Most of the individuals I interviewed preferred to remain anonymous because of the volatile politics surrounding Ordinance 295. One exception is Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, the Catholic archbishop of Lahore . Archbishop Saldanha, who is currently the president of Pakistan ’s Catholic Bishops Conference, is spearheading a movement for the repeal of Sections B and C of Ordinance 295. In December we met in his office in Lahore ’s Catholic Cathedral. He is fighting for the repeal, he told me, because this harmful ordinance – which is worded so as to encourage slander against anyone designated an “enemy of Islam” – has provided a legal rationale for inciting interreligious violence and the persecution of minorities.

Muslims also suffer

But Christians are not the only ones who have suffered because of Pakistan ’s blasphemy law. The Catholic Bishops Conference has pointed out that 50 percent of the individuals imprisoned under Ordinance 295 have been Muslims. They were denounced as apostates by fellow Muslims – whether out of religious zealotry or sheer opportunism – on charges of questioning the Koran or showing insufficient reverence for the Prophet Muhammad’s legacy. (The remaining 50 percent of those imprisoned have been Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis.)

The fact that Muslims have used Ordinance 295 to indict fellow Muslims points up the larger harm inflicted on Pakistan as a whole by this legislation. A Lahore-based Muslim intellectual told me, “295 makes it impossible to think out loud about Islam freely. We’re at risk of paralysis, both as a nation and as a religious tradition.”

For the good of all its citizens, it is time for Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy law.

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David Pinault is an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. His most recent book is Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (2001).