by John Burger via Aleteia.org
In wake of more frequent attacks against Christians, officials move to prevent abuses.
The government of Pakistan is moving to stop abuse of the nation’s anti-blasphemy laws, which have led to death and injury for many people, mainly because of outrage on the part of fanatical Muslims.
Amending the laws would be a welcome development for Christians in Pakistan, who represent 2 percent of the population. But observers worry that changing the laws would be an uphill battle.
“There are radical groups, and religious organizations who are against any change in these laws,” said Dominican Father James Channan, director of the Peace Center in Lahore. “Government is going to face strong opposition from such religious parties and groups. These groups do not want any sort of change in the this law and in the procedure of registering a case under these blasphemy laws.”
Indeed, in too many cases, said Father Channan, radical Muslims hear of an alleged case of desecration of the Quran, and take matters into their own hands, without proper investigation and “fullfilling the procedure of registering a case in the police station and waiting for the judgment from the courts.”
“The worst kind of vandalism is experienced when, for example, one Christian is accused and the etire Christian community of that area is targeted, as in the case of Joseph Colony in Lahore where a Christian named Sawan Masih was accused and entire Christian colony was put on fire and at least 170 Christian houses were burnt as well as two churches,” he said, of a 2013 incident. Not only was the colony destroyed by arsonists, no police or any other security force or agency came to the rescue of the Christians there, he said. In the end, Masih, the alleged blasphemer of the Prophet Muhammad was sentenced to death, and none of the 50 or so accused arsonists have been punished,
“We wonder: where is justice?” Father Channan said. “Why they are set free and why the prayers leaders [and] imams of the nearby mosques around Joseph Colony are not given any punishment and they are not questioned that why did they made announcements from the loudspeakers of the mosque and incited Muslims to attack Christians?
Speaking just a couple of days after the latest incident, in which Christian homes were attacked near the city of Lahore, a diocesan official in Karachi said the government’s plan to introduce a reform bill in Parliament is a “major step forward.”
In fairness, Father Channan also recognizes the help from “many progressive Muslims organizations and prayer leaders [and] imams [who] condemn such acts of vandalism and visit the Christians colonies and Christians and express their sympathies and solidarity with them.
“These Muslim leaders are promoters of peace and harmony,” he said, naming, for example, the grand imam of the Badshahi Moque in Lahore, Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, and the president of the Pakistan Ulama Council, Haifz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafti. “They stand with Christians and publicly condemn such acts of the false accusation of blasphemy and attacks on the vulnerable Christians.”
In fact, he said Azad sprang into action when he heard that a mob was gathering in response to an alleged incident of blasphemy last Sunday in Lahore. A man claimed to have seen a young Christian, Humayun Faisal Masih, burning pages of the Quran. Police arrested Masih, but apparently that did not satisfy the mob. Led by local clerics gathered outside the police station, the people demanded the accused be handed over to them. After police refused and forced the crowd to disperse, the clerics started walking toward Masih’s home. The mob attempted to attack a local church and in fact did attack several Christian homes.
“Azad called me (as I was out of Lahore and in Islamabad) that when he heard of this case and possible attack on Christians he immediatly went to Doop Sari and met both Christians and Muslims,” Father Channan said. “He called all Muslim religious and other leaders and had dialogue with them and told them that there is a law if any such thing of committing a blasphemy happens. No one must take this law into his hands. Moreover, it is against the teachings of Islam and against justice as well.”
The imam went to the site at 6pm and remained there until 3 the next morning, Father Channan said, crediting his Muslim friend for preventing an attack on Christian homes and churches. He also met with government officials urging them to punish anyone who misuses the blasphemy laws for personal reasons.
“I take it as a proper move and step of Mualana Azad to stop misuse of these laws,” said Father Channan. “I do admire his courage for speaking so loudly against such kind of attitude to fanatic Muslims to attack Christians on mere accusation. There are many other Muslim Ulama who are of the same thinking as Maulana Azad.”
Among the changes being introduced, the new law would make it necessary to show bad faith and intent behind an act of blasphemy.
Father Saleh Diego, president of the “Justice and Peace” Commission and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Karachi, told Fides news agency that the Church has been asking for years for mechanisms to prevent abuse of the laws. “We lived and dealt with serious cases in which this law was exploited. It is a matter of justice, as there are many innocent people in prison. Avoiding abuse would be a benefit to society as a whole, for the citizens of all religions, Muslims and Christians, accused unjustly,” the priest said.
He added that “the pressures of the international community can be helpful.”
In a recent report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan pointed out that abuse of the blasphemy law continues to cause oppression and harassment of innocent citizens. Fourteen Pakistanis are on death row, including Asia Bibi, while another 19 are serving a life sentence on charges of committing blasphemy. The number of cases registered in the last 25 years (over 1000) suggests that the law has been widely abused, often for personal vendettas. According to a report by the Center for Research and Studies on Security, based in Islamabad, since 1990, 52 people accused of blasphemy have been victims of extrajudicial executions.
Christian human rights lawyer Sardar Mushtaq Gill said local Christians are terrified and scared. “It has become difficult for Christians to live with Muslims, especially when the blasphemy law is abused,” he said. “We ask the international community to help bring its abolition in Pakistan.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.