Blasphemy laws and religious discrimination, an attack on Pakistan’s future
The particular concern that brings my colleagues and me to Europe is religious extremism and the situation of religious minorities. We would like to inform international public opinion about the institutional injustices against religious minorities, in particular against the Christian community in Pakistan. We would also like international civil society to realize the dangers involved in divorcing the state of affairs in Pakistan.
In August and September 2009, the media world, including Italian print and electronic media, carried news regarding attacks on Christians in different places in Pakistan. On March 9th, a Church was attacked in a village near Gujranwala by a mob and a Christian woman lost her life as a result. On April 22nd, a Christian settlement and a Church were attacked by armed men in Taisar Town, Karachi. Again, a Christian youth was badly injured and died due to injuries.
On June 29th, a whole Christian settlement in a village near Kasur was set ablaze, affecting more than 60 houses and 100 families. Again on July 30th, about 60 houses belonging to Christians in the village of Korian were turned into ashes by a mob. On August 1st, in the town of Gojra about the same number of houses were burnt. Seven Christians, including women and children, were set on fire while an eighth died due to a heart attack after the mob attacked his house and settlement. On September 11th, a Christian settlement and a church were attacked; in the middle of the night of September 14 and 15, a Christian youth was extra judicially killed in a jail. He was accused of desecrating the holy Qur‘an.
I was a frontline team member of our organization; therefore, I am privy to the destruction and despair as a member of the fact-finding team and a witness to these incidents. There are certain common features to these incidents of extreme and organized violence. First, certain groups and organizations are orchestrating a hate campaign against the Christians (about 3 million in Pakistan). Second, the government is usually aware of building tensions but fails to control violent attacks. Third, certain laws and policies breed hatred and are used to cause religious frenzy among the people. Fourth, mosque loudspeakers and forums are used to gather and plant misconceived ideas in people with regards to blasphemy.
Blasphemy laws include Article 295, Sections B and C, and Article 298, Sections A, B and C, of the Pakistan Penal Code. These laws were incorporated into the criminal justice system between 1980 and 1986 by then President of Pakistan Zia-ul-Haq, supposedly to ensure respect for the Prophet Mohammed, his Companions and the Holy Qur‘an. These laws are unique in the contemporary world because they allow dubious charges to be brought against people who have been subjected to extra judicial killings, arson and destruction of their property.
From 1986 to October 2009, at least 966 persons were accused under the blasphemy laws, 50% were Muslims, 35% Ahmadis, 13% Christians, 1% Hindus and 1% with no known religious background. At least 33 persons have been killed extra judicially after allegations were made against them; 15 were Muslims, 15 Christians, two Ahmadis and one Hindu.
These laws were freely used against Muslim and non-Muslim citizens alike. Whole communities or villages were completely devastated because everyone was made to suffer as a result of the abuse of such laws. The number of Muslim victims was high not because blasphemy laws are equal for all citizens, but because various Muslims sects used the law against one another. Nonetheless, the laws are highly discriminatory in terms of their text and scope because they are religion-specific. It is also true that, given their size in relation to the total population, minorities have proportionately suffered more.
My organization has helped many individuals who found themselves in situations where they were accused of blasphemy. Its work involves providing legal aid, sheltering victims and their families, and speaking to the authorities. I speak from experience when I say that these laws have been misused.
It is time that terror and injustice in the name of religion should end. The international community has a role to play to persuade the government of Pakistan to take the necessary action to stop discrimination and violence against religious minorities. To repair the damage, the government of Pakistan should go beyond the repeal of the blasphemy laws. It should move to build a culture of interfaith harmony and peace. It is time the government should prove its claims in action.
* P. Emmanuel Y. Mani, Director of National Commission for Justice and Peace