The abuse of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws is likely one of the biggest issues faced by the religious minority community. Often used as a weapon against religious minorities, false accusations of blasphemy are often motivated by score settling, personal gain, or religious hatred. Once accused, Christians and other religious minorities face intense social outrage that often explodes into all out mob violence. Christians accused of blasphemy have been beaten, shot, and even burned alive just for being rumored to have committed blasphemy against Islam. In several cases, accusations of blasphemy have led to entire Christian neighborhoods being destroyed. Is there any way Pakistan can begin to reform these laws to curb this religiously motivated violence?
12/11/2015 Pakistan (Independent) – When Shafiq Masih visits his relatives, he risks running into a mob. A Christian, convicted and acquitted under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws after a dispute with a neighbor, Mr. Masih lives in fear.
He fled his home in Faisalabad, where he said he was almost lynched by a crowd that was whipped into a murderous frenzy by a local imam. He now lives in Lahore with his wife and seven children in Youhanabad, an impoverished district that is home to many of the city’s Christians.
Blasphemy laws which can punish insulting Islam with death are now regarded as sacrosanct in Pakistan. They are, critics claim, a means to persecute minority faiths and settle petty grievances, over how much butter was sold at a shop or, as in Mr. Masih’s case, an electricity bill.
“The people who knew me, they [often] come from Faisalabad to Lahore,” Mr. Masih said. “They are drivers and laborers. They can be dangerous for me.”
Sewage and stacks of rubbish are strewn across the street where Mr. Masih maintains a welding business, a 10-minute drive from the family home. Mr. Masih said he was accused of blasphemy in Faisalabad in 1998 after his Muslim neighbor refused to contribute to the electricity bill charged on their shared meter. After an altercation, Mr. Masih said a local imam accused him of blasphemy. The accusation was relayed, Mr. Masih said, by the mosque’s speakers. He was then arrested by police and charged with blasphemy. He claims his neighbor levelled the charge.
“They beat me with [their] hands, they beat me [with] the things that they found on the spot,” Mr. Masih said of the mob that had almost lynched him. “I don’t want to think about them.”
He was convicted by Faisalabad’s district court, spending three years in jail before being acquitted by the same court in 2001. He said he does not allow his children to play with other children in case his story is revealed. “If they mix up with other children it is quite likely that someone would know about our hideout,” he said. “In that case, they we will be in danger,” added Mr. Masih’s wife, Najma Shafiq.
Until 1986 only 15 blasphemy cases had been prosecuted in Pakistan, according to Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) figures. But after the legal scope of blasphemy was expanded to include offences such as insulting the Prophet Mohamed – for which the death penalty was introduced under the military ruler Zia-ul-Haq – cases surged. So, too, argue campaign groups, did the misuse of the law.
In October, Pakistan’s highest court upheld a death sentence for the killer of the governor of Punjab, who had called for reform of the blasphemy law. Salman Taseer was shot dead by a bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in 2011, after he had sought a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Since 1990, at least 65 people have died in cases linked to blasphemy in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Christian population is claimed to face much of the alleged abuse of blasphemy laws. “Christians face a lot of discrimination in society and the bigotry against them often ends up using the vehicle of blasphemy allegations motivated either by designs to take over land or by personal enmity or ego,” Sundas Hoorain, a lawyer who has worked on blasphemy cases, said.