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In Pakistan , Fear of the Holy

Nation held hostage by blasphemy laws that target religious minorities.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL , October 12 (Compass Direct News) – Many in Pakistan live in fear of offending God. It is an open debate whether the country’s notorious blasphemy laws are a source of that fear or a symptom of it.

This week one Pakistani bishop found himself fighting a pitched battle to keep blasphemy rumors from igniting riots against his Christian community.

“What usually happens is that word [that someone has committed blasphemy] spreads like wildfire and emotions take over,” Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts told Compass from the Punjabi city of Faisalabad yesterday. “All it takes are one or two hotheads to take the lead. Once someone starts attacking houses, it’s so easy for the mob attitude to take over.”

Fresh allegations of blasphemy seem to be nearly a weekly occurrence in Pakistan (107 people were accused in 2005). Bishop Coutts has spent the last four days doing damage control to save the lives of two of the most recent suspects.

Police in Faisalabad barely rescued James Masih, 65, and his neighbor Buta Masih, 70, on Sunday (October 8) from the hands of a violent Muslim mob roused by claims that the illiterate men had burned pages of the Quran.

The Christian men had set old papers alight in the street near their homes in the city’s Munir Park district, Catholic priest Yaqub Yousaf told Compass.

Muslim neighbor Arshad Mubarak reported to police that Munir Park residents had seen the Christians lighting pages of the Muslim holy book, the priest said.

“It’s a totally false case,” Yousaf commented. “The fellow [Mubarak] wanted Mr. James’ property and has been pushing him to sell it.”

But both Yousaf and Faisalabad Christian lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu said they were glad police had arrested the Christian men when they did.

“It was good that police protected them, because we were scared they would be killed,” said Sindhu. “400 to 500 fanatics were [outside the police station] all night, but the police held them back and nothing was burned.”

Sindhu, who has taken the men’s case pro bono, said the Christians had not been brought before a judge within the required 24 hours specifically because police were afraid for their safety.

Damage Control

Bishop Coutts, who was out of town when the events transpired, said he opened the newspaper the next morning to blazing headlines, “Christians Desecrate the Holy Book.”

“The first few hours were very tense,” said Coutts. “As a precaution, especially the [Christian] women and children were sent to be taken care of in different places.”

The bishop immediately called a press conference for the following day (October 10) to address errors in the story.

“When we explained things at the press conference, the response was very positive,” said Coutts. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll accept the responsibility to put out the truth and not to incite people in any way.’”

The journalists kept their word in subsequent reports, he added. “I thought it was quite good,” the bishop commented. “That’s a first step.”

Coutts’ next move will be to dialogue with local Muslim leaders today. In the wake of initial blasphemy reports, local and national newspapers carried reports that several Faisalabad Muslim clerics and trade union leaders had called for a “social boycott” against Christians.

“It was not necessarily all the religious leaders, just one or two hotheads,” Coutts commented. “But the most dangerous time will be on Friday when, after prayers, the mullahs [Muslim clerics] preach. If they make a few inflammatory sermons when all the people are gathered, it will be like throwing oil on the fire.”

Culture of Blasphemy Violence

As events in Faisalabad illustrate, the immediate damage of blasphemy accusations generally stems from extra-legal sources, not from blasphemy legislation itself.

Though Pakistan has never executed a blasphemy convict since the death penalty was instituted in 1986, at least 23 people have been killed in blasphemy-related incidents.

But it remains unclear what role this legislation, brought to its current form in the 1980s, plays in blasphemy-related violence in Pakistan .

“[Blasphemy related violence] happened before we had the blasphemy law,” Coutts said. “Maybe not so frequently, and certainly by making the law it has aggravated things, but earlier this kind of thing had been there. It’s somewhere part of our whole culture.”

Pakistan ’s most notorious blasphemy legislation is contained in articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting the Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

But the greatest threat to blasphemy suspects stems from Muslims seeking vigilante justice. At times even police take the law into their own hands.

When Sindhu and Yousaf visited Faisalabad District Jail on Monday (October 9), they discovered that jail staff had allowed fellow prisoners to beat James and Buta Masih. Before leaving, the priest and lawyer said they extracted a promise from Jail Superintendent Yousif Wali that the Christian men would be moved to a separate cell.

One of the only lawyers in Pakistan ’s third largest city who will represent blasphemy suspects, Sindu has been assigned an armed guard. In June the lawyer was forced to temporarily move his family into hiding, but extremists have yet to make good on death threats.

Blasphemy suspects are not always so fortunate.

The death and hasty burial of blasphemy convict Bashir Masih last month in southern Punjab has raised suspicions that the Christian may be the 24th Pakistani murdered for blasphemy.

Convicted in February 2005, Bashir Masih was serving a seven-year sentence in Bahawalpur Central Jail for using the Quran to perform magic spells.

Unnamed sources reportedly said Bashir Masih committed suicide on September 30 by touching an electric wire, while jail management claimed the prisoner had died of a heart attack, Urdu language newspaper The Daily Khabrain reported on October 1.

But the prisoner’s relatives said the corpse’s right temple was bloody and the skull was fractured when they collected the body from Victoria Civil Hospital on October 1.

“The main reason they refused a postmortem was a lack of finances and a fear of litigation with the police,” reported Sharing Life Ministries, a non-governmental organization that investigated the matter.

Paying the Price

Even when declared innocent, a former blasphemy suspect must still pay a price.

“I see my five children and wife once every two months,” commented Saleem Masih, a Christian who, with his brother Rasheed, was cleared in March 2003 of charges that he had insulted Muhammad. “It’s not possible to live with your family once you are charged with blasphemy.”

During an interview at an undisclosed location in Pakistan four months ago, the brothers told Compass they had been forced to stay in hiding, working odd jobs and relocating if anyone recognizes them.

“It is difficult for a blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, which has provided legal support for the brothers. “Churches are afraid to help them because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Media often play a critical role in deciding the fate of a blasphemy suspect.

“Once the news was spread that we had been acquitted of blasphemy, people began to look for my brother and me,” Saleem Masih commented. “They would follow my family around so we had to relocate them.”

A rickshaw driver once recognized him from pictures in the news, he said. “If he hadn’t been a Christian,” Masih said, “I probably would have been dead.”

“The vernacular press is very heated and biased,” commented Peter Jacob, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), during an interview with Compass in Lahore . He said one of the tactics NCJP volunteers around the country use to squelch potential blasphemy cases is to keep blasphemy rumors out of the media.

Religious Bias

The majority of blasphemy cases are registered against Muslims, encompassing both illiterate laborers and religious scholars. Crimes range from accidentally knocking over a Quran to challenging standard Islamic beliefs about Muhammad.

Dating from the British colonial period, the laws were initially used to curb religious violence against any religion.

But in the 1980s, new legislation was added to specifically protect the Quran and Muhammad from ridicule. Critics point out that the laws have been used to target religious minorities.

According to NCJP statistics, 35 percent of all people accused of blasphemy since 1986 belong to Pakistan ’s tiny Ahmadi community.

Sections 298-B and 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code forbid the Ahmadi, who claim to be a Muslim sect, from practicing their faith and referring to themselves as Muslims.

Though the Ahmadi community officially constitutes less than 1 percent of the country’s population, the group suffers the most extreme institutionalized discrimination of any religious minority in Pakistan . Since 1984, Ahmadi beliefs have been legally classified as heresy for their controversial stance on Muhammad’s status as Islam’s final prophet.

Christians are also disproportionately targeted. Though the religious minority only makes up 1.5 percent of Pakistan ’s population, Christians constitute 12 percent of formally charged blasphemy suspects, according to the NCJP.

Religious minorities point out that blasphemy accusations pose a unique threat to their communities.

“Once blasphemy charges are connected to Christians, not a particular man, that’s where we all fall in danger,” Bishop Coutts from Faisalabad commented. “[Muslims] may take out their anger on anything Christian, whether it’s a church or school or Christians living here or there.”

Blasphemy cases against Muslims, Coutts said, hold only the accused individually responsible – though they may be severely beaten. “There are even cases where they have beaten [a Muslim] to death,” he said.

Victims of the year’s worst blasphemy riot in November 2005, Christians in the town of Sangla Hill are all too aware that the whole community can pay for the alleged ‘sin’ of one member.

Blasphemy charges against Sangla Hill resident Yousif Masih were dropped in February 2006. But the Christian has not returned to his hometown since a gambling dispute with a Muslim friend, Mohammed Saleem, almost a year ago led to announcements from the town’s mosque minarets that Yousif Masih had burned pages of the Quran.

After a crowd of several thousand Muslims destroyed four churches, a convent and Christian schools, Saleem admitted he had not actually witnessed the alleged blasphemy.

“Yousaf Masih would be killed if he returned to Sangla Hill today,” Catholic and United Presbyterian clergymen told Compass in June 2006.

“The Muslims still have a grudge against us,” said United Presbyterian pastor Tajjamal Pervaiz. “They would attack our churches again.”

Many Pakistanis report good relations between Muslims and Christians (the church has existed in Pakistan for several centuries), but underlying tensions soon surface when the issue of blasphemy is raised.

“Muslim-Christian relations were very good here before this incident,” commented one Christian lawyer from Sangla Hill. “But when it comes to their religion [Islam], they are very emotional.”

“When you sit and talk [with Muslim clerics] under normal circumstances, it’s a different story,” Coutts added. “But they are very attached to the holy book and the person of the holy prophet. So people get very disturbed when they hear about a case of blasphemy.”

Reform or Repeal?

Critics have attacked the blasphemy laws on several levels, claiming that the wording is vague and open to abuse and that the legislation inherently contradicts the country’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

“You can’t make a bad law less bad,” Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I.A. Rehman, told Compass during an interview in Lahore . “Changes have been introduced to improve the law, but they are meaningless. We stand for repeal.”

Despite an amendment in 2004 that the government claimed would cut down on the abuse of the law, the NCJP reported a record number of blasphemy cases were registered in 2005.

“But I don’t think it will be repealed either,” Rehman told Compass. “The politicians are too scared to touch it.”

Fear of the Holy

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf may be one of those politicians. His position as both head of the army and head of state remains precariously perched between conflicting support from domestic Islamic groups and the United States .

As an army general who came to power through a bloodless coup in 1999, Musharraf’s rule is reminiscent of another Pakistani dictator, General Zia Ul-Haq, who staged a 1977 coup and heavily Islamized Pakistan’s legal system.

Though distinctly more secular than Ul-Haq, Musharraf struck a deal with opposition Muslim parties in 2003 to legitimize and extend his presidency. But he has appeared powerless to overrule these parties and push through reforms on Pakistan ’s Islamic legislation.

In 2002, Musharraf scrapped plans to reform the blasphemy law after religious groups protested that the move was anti-Islamic.

The president has recently come under fire in the West for failing to reign in Taliban camps along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and clean up the country’s 10,000 plus Islamic madrassahs (Islamic schools), many of which churn out militant extremists.

But when U.S. President George W. Bush met with Musharraf in Washington D.C. last month, it appeared that Pakistan ’s human rights abuses would not deter the United States from working with Musharraf.

International human rights organizations have criticized the U.S. administration for turning a blind eye to Pakistan ’s rights violations.

But Bush views Musharraf as an important partner in his war on terror. Promoting democratic elections that could potentially legitimize more radical anti-Western leadership in Pakistan are not high on the U.S. administration’s agenda.

Some Pakistani Christians take the same approach. One bishop, who asked to remain anonymous, told Compass that Musharraf’s rule was far preferable to that of Islamic extremists who would come to power through a democratic election.

But Rehman of the HRCP said, “I don’t buy that.” Agreeing was Jacob of the NCJP: “Musharraf is using this as a bargaining point, presenting himself as a lesser evil. He’s holding international opinion hostage.”

The situation for minorities in Pakistan has become worse under Musharraf, he added. “No dictator can be people friendly,” said Jacob. “This is a big misunderstanding that minorities have about Musharraf.”

Jacob pointed out that religious parties, supportive of the blasphemy laws, had made unprecedented gains in national elections during Musharraf’s reign. According to the NCJP’s statistics, “There have been a record number of attacks on minority institutions under his rule.”

“Musharraf and the madrassahs [controlled by extremist groups] are the same thing,” concurred Rehman. “I don’t expect him to cut off his own hand.”

Pressed on the question of what truly democratic elections would initially yield, Rehman admitted that “undemocratic legislation” had strong grassroots support in Pakistan .

“At first the majority would still support the blasphemy laws,” the senior human rights activist said.

For Bishop Coutts in Faisalabad , blasphemy legislation is only symptomatic of deeper cultural issues.

“I’m not saying we should not do away with the law,” the bishop told Compass. “We should. But still this thing is very much there the moment you desecrate anything holy, the book [Quran] or the prophet [Muhammad]. Christians also get very inflamed if you do anything to a church, which I don’t think happens as much in the West.”

But Rehman remained optimistic that a change in the law would eventually bring about a change in the culture.

“The [democratic] process would eventually convince people. You have to open the market before fruit stores will come.”