By Alexa Smith, Presbyterian News Service, June 6, 1998
LOUISVILLE, Ky – Religious and human rights groups are waiting to see whether frustration and anger about the suicide of a Catholic bishop protesting the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law can be turned into momentum to repeal the law or not.
Thousands of Christians demonstrated May 15 in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, to protest a law that imposes death on anyone convicted of insulting Islam or its prophet, Mohammed, just days after the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, John Joseph, shot himself to protest the sentencing of a young Catholic man under the blasphemy law April 27.
Joseph, 66, the chair of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops’ Human Rights Commission, committed suicide in front of the courthouse where Ayub Masih was sentenced to death. Masih’s case is currently on appeal to a higher court, though it was reportedly difficult to find a lawyer to file the appeal because of threats from extremist groups. “The Christian Century” reported May 20 that Masih’s sentence is suspended until the appeal.
More than 600 Christians were arrested in demonstrations outside the Punjab legislature when police fired tear gas into the crowd, according to the Associated Press, and protesters began burning shops and cars in the provincial capital. The rioting occurred about five days after Muslim mobs rampaged through a Christian neighborhood in Faisalabad May 10, just after the bishop’s funeral.
“Before the suicide,” said Cris Toffolo, an Amnesty International Pakistani expert and a political science professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., “there was absolutely no chance of repealing this law. But there have been demonstrations. There has been rioting. The Christian community is galvanized right now … as is the human rights community. But that’s still a tiny fraction of the population. The question is whether this will become a sustained social movement or not.
“As in many cases of human rights abuses, the ability of groups inside the country to mobilize will depend in some degree upon the international pressure brought to bear,” she said, noting that religious minorities in Pakistan constitute only about 3 percent of the population.
Christians compose 2.5 percent of the population, according to experts.
Parts of Pakistan’s blasphemy code date back to the 1860s, when it was put in place by British colonizers to curb Hindu-Muslim violence. Offenses include defiling a place of worship, acts insulting to religious beliefs and utterances wounding religious feelings.
When General Zia-ul Haq instituted marital law in 1977, he initiated a period of intense Islamization in which the code was amended so that it opened the way for courts to punish with death those who defile the name of the prophet Mohammed. During those years as well, legislation was passed criminalizing the practice of the faith of the Ahmadiya minority, an Islamic sect, and tightly restricting religious minorities’ voting rights. Christians and even minority Muslims have no local political representation, holding only countrywide at-large seats.
Although blasphemy cases are filed only occasionally and no death sentence has yet been carried out, since higher courts repeatedly have overturned the convictions, extremist elements have taken matters into their own hands with seeming impunity. For example, two Christians, Naimet Ahmer and Manzoor Masih, and one Muslim, Farood Salaad, were killed by extremists, and others have been forced to flee the country, including one 13-year-old boy.
A judge who publicly criticized sections of the blasphemy code also was killed.
“If you are a religious minority,” said Toffolo, talking about how the revised section of the blasphemy code (pertaining to offenses against Islam only) gets enforced, “most of the time nobody is going to hassle you. But if you live in an area with an extremist religious leader or if you get involved in a personal, political or property dispute with a neighbor, you may be subject to harassment. With these laws on the book, any Muslim can easily bring a legal case against you … for which the only penalty is death.
“And if a case is brought against you,” said Toffolo, “it is hard to have it dismissed, given that the police and court officials are intimidated by the present political climate.” She likened the fervor for prosecution in Pakistan now to that of the United States during the McCarthy era.
Amnesty International reports that over 140 individuals have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy code since it was put into place, with two or three dozen of those facing the death penalty on the charge of insulting Islam. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented 121 cases from 1986 to 1993 – 107 of those filed against Ahmadiyas, six against mainstream Muslims and eight against Christians.
A Pakistani human rights attorney, Clement John, who is a member of the World Council of Churches’ international affairs staff in Geneva, contends that the bulk of the charges are spurious – whipped up by extremists to heighten religious animosity or contrived to usurp land from jailed or exiled minorities. “As long as [the blasphemy law] remains on the statute book,” he told the Presbyterian News Service, “there’s always a threat.”
Unconfirmed reports say that Masih’s case began in 1996, when he was accused by a neighbor of saying, “If you want to know the truth about Islam, read Salman Rushdie.” A British novelist, Rushdie lives in hiding since Iranian religious leaders decried his book “The Satanic Verses” as blasphemous and called for his execution in the 1980s. Though Masih was initially arrested with his brother, Samsoon (who was later released), Human Rights Without Frontiers in Brussels contends that both men were tortured.
Other sources say that shots were fired at Masih in open court last November.
Amnesty International says that Masih’s problems began when his family applied for land under a government program allotting land to the landless for housing. Christians in the area apparently live as tenants on the property of large landowners in exchange for working in their fields. After the complaint was filed against Masih, 14 Christian families were evicted and several individuals were beaten by locals.
Both the WCC and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC) are calling for the repeal of the blasphemy law in letters to the Pakistani government, charging that the intolerant code abets religious persecution and discriminatory practice. “The law itself is discriminatory – the way it is used,” said John. “There’s also the fact that [it is not possible] to get a fair trial in this climate of intolerance.”
So human rights activists and religious groups are pushing now for international pressure to persuade the Pakistani government to repeal the law or, at a minimum, make it harder to use. And they are worried that the world has already forgotten the bishop’s death and the deeper human rights quandary, and turned its attention instead to the Pakistani government’s recent deployment of nuclear weapons.
“My sense is these minorities in Pakistan are so small,” said the NCC’s Asia expert, Larry Tankersley, “they depend on the solidarity of [internationals] for the kind of support they need to have … so they are not struggling with this issue by themselves.”
Church World Service – the NCC’s relief arm – is part of a coalition of groups supporting a National Campaign on Communal Harmony – workshops promoting religious and ethnic tolerance that are under way now. Insiders say that despite work by women’s and labor groups, trade unions and human rights activists, the bishop’s suicide provoked the first simultaneous calls for repeal of the law by Pakistan’s small Protestant community and the Roman Catholic Church there.
CWS Pakistani program director Marvin Parvez is careful to point out that tackling the law is not just a religious matter but a human rights matter. “It is not just a threat to the Christian minority. It is a threat to our very being as a nation,” he said, adding that other Islamicized legislation has severely curtailed women’s rights in Pakistan. “Any law that favors protecting only one community is not just and fair.”
Few Pakistani experts say that prosecuting citizens charged with blasphemy is a policy of the current Pakistan Muslim League government, though archconservatives did provide electoral support for the party’s first term. Neither do they see ordinary Pakistanis as supportive of such extremist measures. What they do say is that the political will to stem the extremists’ influence and apparent legal impunity is weak. In Toffolo’s words: “With international pressure, the government, if it chooses, today can afford to take the moral high road.” She said it garnered huge popular support in the last election.
But she minces no words when emphasizing that the world’s attention has shifted from the plight of Pakistan’s religious minorities to the furor over the government’s decision to proceed with nuclear testing despite appeals by the international community. “It’s been overshadowed yet again,” Toffolo told the Presbyterian News Service, adding that the current state of emergency in Pakistan has allowed the government to suspend the constitution and crack down more harshly on protesters.
“Just swat the fly,” she said, “so [the government] can get onto the main issues … the nuclear crisis and the economic crisis.”
Human rights activists and religious thinkers, including the Rev. Arthur James, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and a professor at the Gujranwala Theological Seminary, believe that reforming the blasphemy law instead of trying to repeal it may be the most realistic option now.
Some of the proposals include arresting those who press false charges, legislation that failed once during the Bhutto administration; requiring a preliminary investigation before arresting the accused; and ensuring the defendant’s safety both in police custody and on bail.
“There’s a strong element of frustration. People are beginning to say, ‘How long must we suffer … ?” said John, describing the contrast between Pakistan’s often rural Christian communities accustomed to little political influence and the thousands that turned out for demonstrations last month. “By and large,” he said, “this is a very timid, very insecure community that would not take extreme measures.”
James holds a similar opinion, insisting that Pakistani Christians see Joseph’s death as a sacrificial one for the life of the church. “With the bishop’s death, there’s new energy. The repeal of the law is an old idea.
“But now,” said James, “people are organized.”