Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Pakistan is a plural society with a number of religious, sectarian and ethno-linguistic groups. It is nation of about162 million people where Muslims represent more than 90 per cent of the total, divided doctrinal lines. As a religious minority Christians face religious, social, constitutional, economic and educational discrimination. In addition to Christians, non-Muslim Pakistanis include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Kalasha, Parsees and Sikhs.
Pakistan’s Founding Fathers envisaged a progressive, democratic and tolerant society that retained its Muslim character whilst giving equal rights to its non-Muslim citizens.
In his address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State. [. . .] We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not so in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”
This speech sums up Jinnah’s views on the role of religion and the state; it is considered by many as the founding charter of Pakistan.
Islamisation of the country
However, in the subsequent decades, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pakistani state, rather than guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities to all its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, began instead to encourage extremist forces. This has allowed Islamist forces in Pakistan to rewrite South Asian history to suit their own religious biases. Consequently, today most Pakistani Muslims know nothing of the significant contributions made by minorities to the creation and the defence of Pakistan. What’s more, academics and journalists have largely failed to publicise this vital information.
Regrettably, the official history of Pakistan does not reflect the role Christians played in the establishment of the country. The historical facts regarding Christians and other minorities’ contribution are neither mentioned, nor highlighted.
The constitutions of Pakistan
In addition to the interim legislation of 1947 and the Objectives Resolution of 1949, Pakistan has had four Constitutions since its independence.
In 1973, then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had the National Assembly adopt a new constitution that introduced a parliamentary form of government. To this day, this charter remains the only consensus-based constitution the country has ever known. However, after coming to power General Zia-ul-Haq made radical amendments to the constitution, affecting the civil rights of all Pakistanis, but especially non-Muslims.
The Constitution of Pakistan segregates its citizens on the basis of religion and provides preferential treatment to Muslims. For example, Article 2 of the Constitution declares Islam as “the State religion of Pakistan” and recognises the Holy Qur‘an and the Sunnah as “the supreme law and source of guidance for legislation to be administered through laws enacted by the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies, and for policy making by the Government”. Similarly, Article 41(2) says that only a Muslim can become president. Last but not least, Article 260 recognises two distinct categories of people, “Muslim” and “Non-Muslim,” thereby facilitating and encouraging discrimination on the basis of religion.
The constitution is so clearly one-sided in giving preferential treatment to majority Muslims that even a Hindu judge had to take the oath of office in the name of “Allah”. On 24 March 2007, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, as the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, was sworn in as Acting Chief Justice of Pakistan after the suspension of the incumbent Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. When Justice Bhagwandas was sworn in, he had to recite the Qur‘anic prayer: “May Allah Almighty help and guide me, (A'meen)”.
The Pakistan Penal Code, in particular Section 295-A, Section 295-B, Section 295-C, Section 298-A and Section 298-B, imposes harsh punishment for alleged blasphemy. These blasphemy laws undermine other major provisions of the Constitution of Pakistan such as the fundamental right to “profess, practice and propagate” one’s religion (Article 20), the principle of equality before the law and the equal protection of the law to all citizens (Article 25), as well as the “legitimate rights and interests of minorities” (Article 36).
Historically, the most far-reaching steps towards Islamisation were taken during President Zia-ul-Haq administration (1977 to 1988). Under his rule, a number of Islamic laws were introduced and a judicial body was set up to review all existing laws as to their agreement with Islamic principles. Laws and orders passed during the martial law years under President Zia-ul-Haq, including those governing religious offences, were placed outside the scope of judicial review by the Eighth Constitutional Amendment of 1985.
The blasphemy provisions of the Penal Code have been widely abused and misused to target minorities and sometimes settle personal scores among the Muslims. Even after acquittal by the courts, those who had to face blasphemy charges still live in fear.
Amendments of laws relating to religious offences in the Pakistan Penal Code brought about under President Zia differ significantly from earlier laws in at least four ways. They do not specifically mention malicious intent to hurt religious sensitivities as a condition for criminal offence and provide for significantly increased penalties. They make specific reference to Islam whilst earlier laws were intended to protect the religious sentiments of "any class of persons". A distinct shift in emphasis is noticeable: the new sections of the Penal Code do not make it a criminal offence to injure the religious feelings of Muslims, but rather define the offence in terms of insult or affront to Islam itself. The offences consist in defiling or insulting the prophet of Islam, his companions and family members and desecrating the Koran.
Other forms of discrimination against Christians
The widespread economic, social, legal and cultural discrimination against Christians is the main issue that needs to be addressed in Pakistan.
Land and properties, including places of worship, owned by Christians have been forcibly seized. Minorities have been denied equal treatment and protection by law enforcement personnel.
Kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of Christian and Hindu girls is a common practice. Should a Muslim man be arrested for such a crime, all he has to do is produce a certificate issued by any Muslim seminary claiming that the kidnapped girls have voluntarily adopted Islam and married the accused. The courts generally do not consider the fact that most of the girls are under age and simply accept the validity of the certificate of conversion without making any additional inquiry.
In some areas of the North-West Frontier Province, various Taliban groups have started to apply the Jizya, a tax imposed only on non-Muslims. At the same time, members of the Sikh, Hindu and Christian communities have been kidnapped for hefty ransoms.
On 6 February 1997, a mob of about 30,000 Muslims attacked a Christian village called Shantinagar, near Khanewal City, in Punjab Province. They set on fire the whole village, including many Churches. The spark that caused the assault was a blasphemy case involving a Christian who was charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code.
On 12 November 2005, another angry mob of some 2,000 Muslims vandalised and set fire to three Churches, a nuns’ convent, two Catholic schools, the homes of a Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest, a girls’ hostel and the homes of Christian residents in the village of Sangla Hill in Nankana District, in Punjab. The attack was sparked by an alleged case of blasphemy involving a local Christian, also under section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code.
On 8 May 200, many Christian families reportedly fled their homes after they received a threatening letter from Islamic militants at Charsada in the North-West Frontier Province. In it, they were summoned to convert to Islam within 10 days or face dire consequences. In June 2007, Christians in Shantinagar village, Khanewal District, in Punjab received similar threats. In such cases, police have often failed to provide adequate protection.
On 22 April 2009, a gang of armed extremists attacked a group of Christians in Tiasar Town, a Karachi suburb, setting six houses on fire and seriously injuring three Christians. One of them was Irfan Masih, whose injuries were serious from the beginning and who died five days later.
On 30 June 2009, angry Muslims attacked Christian homes in Bahmani wala village, Kasur District, in Punjab, after another Christian was accused of blaspheming against Islam’s prophet. They damaged about 100 houses and stole valuables (gold jewellery) and cash. The mob also smashed furniture and other household items.
On 1 July 2009, a Christian youth, Imran Masih, was tortured by a group of Muslims and then arrested by local police for allegedly burning pages of the Qur‘an in Faisalabad’s Hajwary area.
On 30 July 2009, thousands of Muslim fundamentalists descended upon the village of Koriyan where they set 51 Christian homes on fire after another case of alleged blasphemy. Two days later, on 1 August, at least 3,000 extremists went after the Christian community in Gojra. Seven people were burnt to death (including two children and three women), and another 19 were injured. Dozens of houses were also set on fire.
These incidents illustrate the kind of abuse and the far-reaching consequences of the blasphemy laws; too many times, they have been used to justify violence against others.
These incidents tell us what can happen to particular sections of society. However, Muslims too have been victimised by these laws over the past 20 years. Therefore, the situation calls for a serious and long-term remedy.
According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation of the Catholic Church of Pakistan, at least 964 persons have been accused on the basis of these laws between 1986 and August 2009. They include 479 Muslims, 119 Christians, 340 Ahmadis, 14 Hindus and 10 of unknown religion.
Angry mobs or individuals were responsible for 32 extrajudicial killings.