Exclusive: Pakistan: Abuse of Christian and other Religious Minorities (Part Three of Three)
by ADRIAN MORGAN
October 8, 2009
Bishop John Joseph
Manzur Masih, a 37-year-old Christian laborer, was shot outside the Lahore courthouse on April 5, 1994. Acquitted of blasphemy, gunmen connected to the fanatical Sunni terror group Sipah-i-Sahaba had issued their own version of "summary justice,"
A year previously, Masih had been put on trial with two others from his village, Rehmat Masih and 12-year-old Salamat Masih. Initially accused by a cleric allied to Sipah-i-Sahaba, they were charged, found guilty and sentenced to death under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. They were accused of writing derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed. Since the early 1990s (states the National Commission for Justice and Peace) the death penalty has been a mandatory sentence for those found guilty of breaching Section 295-C. The flaw in the charge against the three villagers was that they were all illiterate and could not have written the insulting slogans for which they were convicted. All three were shot outside the court, with Manzur dying on the spot. Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih received serious injuries.
Justice Arif Iqbal Husain Bhatti, one of the two Lahore High Court judges who set the Christians free, was not to escape the "justice" of fanatics. He would receive death threats from fanatics. Finally, in October 1997, the extremists' threats were fulfilled and the judge was shot near the Lahore courthouse where he worked. A laborer was arrested for the judge's murder in 1998.
The suspect, Ahmad Sher, allegedly told interrogators that: "....I went to his Turner Road office at around 9 am but he had not arrived. I went out and returned after about 30 minutes but he was still not present. When I went into the office for the third time, the office boy went in to inform him and entered the room from the other door. He was engrossed in some document when I fired three shots targeting the head and face. After firing the shots I rushed out."
Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph kissed the feet of Manzur Masih's corpse at his funeral, and is said to have declared: "Manzur, the next blood to be shed for these laws will be mine." The bishop would lead protests of Christians against the murder of Manzur Masih.
John Joseph, a native of Khushpur, was born on November 15, 1932. He was ordained as a priest on January 18, 1960, and consecrated as a bishop in January 1981. He served as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Faisalabad for four years before becoming ordained as the Bishop of Faisalabad on January 9, 1984.
Bishop Joseph's pastoral work brought him into contact with Christians with little education and no political power, who were being exploited by Islamic fundamentalists. He would become deeply involved in the plight of Christians who were accused by fanatics of "blasphemy" against Islam.
He would become intimately linked with the National Commission for Justice and Peace, NCJP, a group formed in 1985 by the Pakistan Catholic Bishop's Conference. In 1987, NCJP provided advocacy for bonded labor in brick factories, leading to the abolition of bonded labor in 1992.
One of the campaigns against discrimination that Bishop John Joseph and the NCJP worked on was mounting an opposition to a decision by the government to have a section on identity cards listing a person's religion. With Catholic and Protestant bishops staging sit-down protests on streets, the government relented at Christmas 1992 and withdrew its plans for the legislation.
On March 20, 1998, the bishop convened a rally for Christian unity in Vienna, Austria. Accompanied by Catholics and Protestants, he spoke of the problems of minorities in Pakistan and condemned the blasphemy laws. He said of them that "we object to these laws because they are the main hindrance to Christian-Muslim relations. We shall fight till the dawn comes, (and) the forms (of this fight) may be diverse."
Though long, in an address dated April 30, 1998, John Joseph gave a succinct account of fundamentalism. Called "The Challenges of Religious Fundamentalism and Violence to Social Harmony," this is a segment:
"The first victims of the fundamentalist parties are the religious minorities. They direct their full wrath on these minorities and depict them as dangerous to society and country. For example, Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan. In Iran, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Bahais were brutally persecuted and excluded from all government jobs. In Egypt, the Coptics are the victims. The second victims are women. They believe women are inferior to men, root of evil, weak and stupid, and without any understanding of worldly affairs. The third victims are those people who have secular, liberal, and enlightened outlook, especially the intellectuals and the human rights' activists."
"They are against the West and watch carefully their progress and activities. Whenever possible they will do acts of terrorism to get attention from the world media For them every one in the Western countries is an enemy of Islam so they support all sorts of violent or non-violent activities to fight against their enemies who are non-Muslims and westernized Muslims, as well."
"To popularize their policies they use the method of Tabligh, that is preaching. Their second method is violence. It is their belief that those who oppose them are the enemies of God. First they terrorize them to silence them; in the second stage they eliminate them which also serve as warnings to others."
"Those individuals who adopt secular ideas are regarded by them as Murtad/apostate and thus punishable by death. To legitimize it, the Fatwa (i.e. religious judgment) is issued in this regard which makes it obligatory on every Muslim to kill the said person. In Iran, during the Shah regime, a liberal advocate Khusrau was killed when the religious leaders sanctioned his murder. Similarly, Imam Khomeini issued the Fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie."
"In Pakistan very often fatwas are issued against Christians. This happened in the case of Salamat Masih, a teenager, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, farmers in Gujranwala, Gul Masih, a small business owner in Sargodha, and Nemat Ahmer, a school teacher in Faisalabad. Nemat Ahmer was killed and so was Manzoor Masih. Salamat Masih, Gul Masih and Rehmat Masih were given death sentence by the Sessions Courts but later freed by the High Court of Lahore. Very often Islamic laws, particularly Blasphemy Laws are used against others in particular against Christians to settle personal scores and prejudices. This creates a sense of fear among the Christians."
"Under the fundamentalist influence, publication of religious books increase and secular literature rapidly decreases. It also greatly affects the music, painting, sculpture, and dancing, and, also as a whole, the society loses its glamour, and violence and dullness reign supreme. This is what has happened for example in Pakistan."
"For South African Archbishop Tutu, 'the real issue at hand is taking Islamic fundamentalism as a challenge and the most effective way to counter it is by deepening people's faith.' (art. Islam is Africa, in World Mission, January, 1993, PP 28-29.)"
The Case of Ayub Masih
Less than a week after he made his address on the victimization of minorities, Bishop John Joseph would be dead. There were intimations in the words he reputedly spoke over the body of Manzur Masih that he considered martyrdom. In the address he made six days before he died, he had mentioned: "I shall count myself extremely fortunate, if in this mission of breaking the barriers, Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of His people. As St. Paul wrote, "It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church" (Col. 1: 24)."
Aged 66, Bishop Joseph killed himself. He had traveled to a court in Sahiwal in Punjab province on May 6, 1998. The bishop had asked Father Yaqoob Farooq to accompany him. At around 9:30 pm, after asking Fr. Farooq to stay back, the bishop took out a pistol and shot himself in the neck. He died on the same spot where a member of his diocese had been shot at, on November 6, 1977. This individual was Ayub Masih. On April 27, 1998, two days before Bishop John Joseph made his address against victimization of minorities, Ayub Masih had been sentenced to death.
On October 14, 1996 Ayub Masih had been arrested, accused of breaching Section 295-C, (making "derogatory comments about Prophet Mohammed"). Unusually, the indictment claimed that Ayub had suggested someone read the "Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie. The authorities had taken an alleged suggestion to read a book to be the same as insulting a prophet, a bizarre precedent in law.
Ayub's personal account of his case includes the following:
"In truth, I never said anything against Islam or its Prophet. I worked as a brick layer in Karachi and I was attending a Bible College because I wanted to become a minister. In August 1996, I returned to my home village of Arifabad to visit my family. My family was facing trouble with a Muslim landlord who wanted to take all of the land away from the Christians in our village. My father and brothers resisted the landlord’s demand to give up the land rights to our property. At my family’s house, my brother and I were beaten by a mob of several dozen men. The mob then dragged my brother and me to the local police station."
"I was formally arrested, on 14th October 1996, following a complaint filed by Muhammed Akam, who alleged that he heard me saying, ‘If you want to know the truth about Islam, then read Salman Rushdie.’ The case was registered with the police without proper investigation and based merely on the statement by the complainant. Meanwhile, my whole family, along with the other 14 Christian families, fled our village under threats to their lives. Pakistani police did nothing to protect them or to stop the terror. I was imprisoned for the next 5 years and 10 months, most of that time, in Multan jail. After one year in prison, I was tried for blasphemy."
The original trial was held in Arifwala, but there was a fear that extremists would disrupt proceedings. Ayub was moved to Sahiwal, and there he was shot. The gunman was not arrested. Ayub stated, "Police refused to arrest the man."
The death of Bishop John Joseph seemed designed to highlight the injustice of the case of Ayub Masih, a case that was a pars pro toto for all the other injustices endured by Christian and other minorities in Pakistan. Inside Pakistan, Christians went on protests and the world's media may have taken more of an interest in the plight of Pakistan's minorities. On May 28, 1998, three weeks after Bishop Jon Joseph shot himself, Pakistan announced to the world that it had conducted its first successful tests of nuclear weapons. The international media was diverted away from the plight of oppressed minorities in Pakistan.
Ayub Masih endured abuse in prison. He was stabbed in prison in early 1999. Though he attack was witnessed by jail staff, the four Muslims who carried out the assault were never punished. The prison staff even refused to allow him a doctor. Ayub had an appeal in July 2001, but the courthouse was filled with Islamists who were shouting death threats. The appeal fell through. On October 8, 2001, a petition on Ayub's behalf was made to the United Nations, to its Commission on Human Rights' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention A second appeal was made to the Supreme Court i Pakistan. On August 16, 2002, the Supreme Court threw out the case. While fundamentalists offered a 100,000 rupee bounty on his head, Ayub Masih slipped out of the country and found sanctuary in the United States of America.
Why The Law Never Changes
Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) was prime minister at the time of Bishop John Joseph's death. Sharif's government defended the blasphemy laws. A spokesman from the foreign ministry declared that "complete freedom of speech" existed in Pakistan, but argued that "denigration of any religion is not permissible." The Religious and Minorities Minister in Nawaz's cabinet was Raja Zafarul Haq, who had previously defended the blasphemy laws. and had been active in persuading General Zia ul-Haq in his campaigns against the Ahmadis. Immediately after Bishop Joseph's death, Zafarul Haq claimed that minorities in Pakistan had full security "according to Islamic teachings. He asserted that the blasphemy laws had never been implemented in the country "without substantial evidence."
On Friday May 8, 1998, thousands of Christians in Faisalabad publicly mourned the bishop. When some allegedly began to throw stones at shops, the crowds were tear-gassed by police. Joseph's body lay in a coffin in Faisalabad Cathedral before burial. Nawaz Sharif commiserated with the mourners, saying the bishop's death was tragic. He urged Pakistani nationals to be tolerant of each others' religions and beliefs, but made no plans to change the law.
Soon Nawaz Sharif would be deposed in a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. In April 2000, before he had restored a semblance of democracy to the nation, Musharraf promised to act against the human rights abuses proliferating in the country. He told a human rights conference in Islamabad that he would act to protect women and minorities. He vowed to put an end to "honor killings" and claimed that he would attempt to end the abuse connected with the blasphemy laws.
In May 2000 Musharraf admitted that he had given up his plans to amend the manner in which the blasphemy laws were to be applied. His plan was to replace the immediate incarceration of someone accused of blasphemy with the intervention of a senior public official, who would investigate cases before arrests could be made. Musharraf backed down in the face of opposition and threats of protest from "a number of Islamic organizations".
Musharraf had the confidence of the army, but even though he managed in 2006 to have the Hudood laws repealed (these laws ensured that a raped woman who went to law was jailed for adultery unless she could produce four male Muslim witnesses) he did not attempt to remove the blasphemy legislation. The Minister for Religion in the last government was Ameer Liaquat Hussein,who supports strong punishments for "blasphemy". One Senator in In 2007 spoke of reforming the law, but nothing happened.
The blasphemy laws have been condemned by governments, human rights organizations, and political and religious figures since they became implemented. Yet no constructive action has been taken. Recently, editorials in the comparatively liberal English language press in Pakistan have called for the blasphemy laws to be abolished. Such calls have happened frequently before but have never brought change.
In August 2009, Pakistan's current State Minister for Interior, Tasneem Ahmed Qureshi, spoke of the violence in Gojra, promising an inquiry. He announced that "the government will take appropriate measures to prevent future flare-ups of communal carnage," and mentioned plans by Prime Minister Gilani to introduce more reserved seats in the National Assembly for representatives of minority groups. He mentioned that the government may review the blasphemy laws to prevent their abuse. Minorities need the laws to be rewritten or abolished.
Shahbaz Bhatti is the current Minorities Minister. He has suggested that the blasphemy laws need to be reviewed. When he was in the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance he campaigned for the laws to be abolished, not reviewed.
For too long, Islamists who desire to see democracy overthrown have interfered with the democratic process. In the last government, about one sixth of the seats in the National Assembly were by members of the MMA, an alliance of six hardline Islamist parties. In May 2007 the MMA managed to introduce a draft bill against apostasy. This was never ratified, but it ordered that anyone who left Islam was liable to the death penalty.
While governments have come and gone, Pakistan's paramilitary intelligence services – ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence – have used Islamism to expand their powers, training up and funding terrorist groups to fight India in Kashmir and in an aborted attempt to introduce a Sikh state (Khalistan) in India. Some of the most fierce terror groups were set up during the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. The ISI were instrumental in setting up the Afghanistan Taliban. The network of jihadists established by ISI, and even the powerful ISI itself, would never allow any government to remove Islamist laws without a fight.
The original laws on religion in the 1860 Penal Code were not designed to favor one religion above another. I spoke to a Pakistani commentator, who told me: "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 wound religious sensitivities as a condition of criminal offence and they provide significantly increased penalties. Moreover they make specific reference to Islam while the earlier laws were intended to protect the religious sentiments of 'any class of persons'. Besides, there is a distinct shift in emphasis: the newly introduced sections of the PPC do not make it a criminal offence to injure the religious feelings of Muslims, but rather define the offense in terms of insult or affront to Islam itself. The offenses consist in defiling or insulting the prophet of Islam, his companions and family members and desecrating the Koran."
In a Muslim country, any attempt to remove an Islamic law can be seen as an attack upon Islam, even if the law is being abused and is causing harm to Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
One bizarre case of blasphemy involved Muhammad Yousaf Ali, who had once been a favorite of General Zia ul-Haq. Formerly an adviser to the Saudi government, a senior figure in the army, Yousaf Ali became a religious figure. Soon he became carried away with his religious ideas. He was alleged to have declared himself a prophet, though he denied it. A cult grew around Yousaf Ali and some of his followers did think of him as a prophet. He soon gained the name "Yousaf Kazab" (Yousaf Liar). On August 5, 2000, he was sentenced to death for contravening Section 295-C of the penal code (derogatory language about Mohammed).
On June 11, 2002, Yousaf Ali was shot dead in Kot Lakhpat Central Jail in Lahore, Punjab province. He was being moved from one cell to another when another prisoner, Tariq Mota, drew a gun and shot Yousaf Ali four times in the chest. When the jail superintendent arrived, Mota said to him: "It was your duty, but I have done it." The killer said he had been in possession of the pistol for four months.
Tariq Mota, the Sipah-i-Sahaba terrorist who killed Yousaf Ali, also allegedly said after the murder: "I now feel spiritually satisfied. It is the responsibility of every Muslim to kill these infidels."
Amnesty International complained and asked for the blasphemy laws to be amended or abolished. The governor of Punjab province blamed the jail staff for the death.
Another notable case concerned human rights activist Younus Sheikh. Though accused of blasphemy, Younus Sheikh had said at a convention on October 1, 2000 that the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between Pakistan and India should become the international border. This incensed a Pakistani officer. Sheikh lost his college teaching job, and then was accused under Section 295-C of the PPC, blaspheming against Mohammed. He was found guilty. On August 18, 2001, Younus Sheikh was sentenced to death. His appeal was successful and he was secretly released from jail on November 21, 2003. He remained incognito in Pakistan before fleeing to Europe.
People from all backgrounds and creeds have been accused of blasphemy. But when people genuinely believe they are prophets, there must be doubts about their sanity. On August 7, 2003, a court in Bahawalnagar, Punjab province, sentenced Bashir Ahmed to death for blasphemy against Mohammed, and also for claiming to be a prophet. Ahmed believed he was sent by God to reform society. Ahmed had a group of followers, and medical reports declared him to be mentally sound. His family had argued that he was psychiatrically unbalanced.
In Sindh province one faith healer was taken into custody on Christmas Day, 2008. Allegedly Abdul Jabbar he had been found burning pages from the Koran. A crowd of thousands had gathered and decided to wreak vengeance upon Jabbar and his assistant, a man called Naimatullah. The two men were tortured and their den set alight. The crowd was going to burn the pair alive when police arrived. The faith healer and his accomplice were charged under Section 295-B.
In July 2003 a sub-editor with mental illness was sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy in North-West Frontier Province. The sub-editor allowed a letter in English to be published, not understanding its contents. The office of the "Frontier Post" was torched, and even though the sub-editor was declared by a doctor to be mentally ill, the doctor's assessment was over-ruled by the judge.
One disturbing case of mental illness has recently been discussed. Back in 1996, a woman called Zebunnisa was accused under Section 295-B of desecrating the Koran. She has been in prison ever since that date, and has never been brought before a court. Imprisonment without trial for 13 years is an abuse of her rights, but in January 25, 2006 she was taken to a mental hospital where she was declared to be "mentally retarded." Instead of being released on the basis of a request made in September, the woman must wait. Lahore High Court ruled on October 1, 2009 that Zebunissa's counsel must submit another application for her release.
It is generally accepted that personal arguments or religious differences are the source of blasphemy accusations. In June 2006 an imam from a mosque was killed, and another was severely injured in a row over "blasphemy" that involved two competing sects of Sunni Islam. The incident took place in Hasilpur, Bahawalpur district in Punjab. The imam, Qamar Javed, preached at an Ahl-e-Hadith mosque. When he burned some trash, the imam was accused by members of another sect that he was burning Koran pages. A mob situation developed, and the imam was killed and his assistant beaten. Posthumous blasphemy cases were registered against the two victims of the mob, while the killers received no charges.
On June 27, 2008 Lahore High Court quashed a death sentence which had been given in 2003 to Tahir Asim, an imam. The cleric claimed that his accusers had religious differences with him. The court agreed, and Asim was released on the same day.
The Sipah-i-Sahaba and Lashkar-i-Jhvangi have been involved with provoking blasphemy issues, and they have also been implicated in cases of sectarian violence (including bombings) against Shia Muslims. It is therefore unsurprising that in May 2005, when fourteen Shias were officially accused of blasphemy, the Sipah-i-Sahaba were involved.
The Shias were accused under Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (“use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages”). The Shia group included five children. On a Shia holy day, the children allegedly made an effigy of a companion of the Prophet, placed it on a donkey, uttered insulting comments, and took it to a market. They repeated the remarks and ran off when reprimanded. Originally, nine children had been listed in the FIR charge.
A jirga (tribal council) intervened and suggested the children should have their faces blackened (a shameful experience) and then made to ride on donkeys. This did not happen, and the case was brought to the police instead. The Shias lived in a village (in Haveli Koranga, Khanewal district) where the Sipah-i-Sahaba had been founded in 1986, and were effectively surrounded by members of the Deobandi fundamentalist group. (The Taliban of Afghanistan follows this ideology, as do the Tablighi Jamaat, a group which has several ISI members).
In April 2008 in Karachi, Sindh province, a Hindu factory worker was tortured and murdered by his coworkers, who accused him of blasphemy. Twenty-seven-year-old Jagdish Kumar had allegedly doubted the sanctity of Prophet Mohammed. When police arrived, the workers were trying to burn Mr. Kumar's body.
There are many more stories of how the issue of blasphemy and the unfair implementation of the blasphemy laws have turned Pakistan into a nation where its minorities live a precarious existence, where at any time they could become a victim. The blasphemy laws also are abused against individual Muslims.
When there is a constant fear, some people occasionally turn against each their erstwhile friends. Rather than becoming victims, some people join with the oppressors. At the end of March 2009, several Christian families were forced to flee their homes in the village of Sahiwal, Punjab province. The refugees were accused of throwing ink on the Koran. Their accusers were not only Muslims, but other Christians.
A copy of the Koran was allegedly found on the floor in a girls' school in the village after an overnight break-in. The pages of the holy book were smeared in ink and gum. On a blackboard was a statement which appeared to implicate a particular Christian male. A mob tried to set fire to his house and the houses of his associates. More arson attempts followed. The factions appear to have divided along political lines, but it seems that some Christians preferred to side with those who wanted mob justice, to save themselves from being the victims of such "justice."
There is no room to insert a timeline of blasphemy events, as I had originally intended. I must offer that as a supplement at a later date. A brief timeline can be found here, and a listing of Ahmadi cases where the death sentence was imposed can be found here.
The President of Pakistan, Ali Asif Zardari, recently made promises in the Vatican and in London to ensure that minorities are not subjected to further assaults like that in Gojra on August 1, 1999. On September 18, 2009, Zardari spoke to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
The notice on the Archbishop's website reads:
"The President expressed awareness of the perception about Blasphemy law being exploited. The Government was conscious of the need to urgently address the issue in consultation with other political parties, civil society and religious communities in Pakistan with a view to preventing the misuse of the Blasphemy law in future. He confirmed that the Government was endeavoring to seek a broad political consensus on the issue through consultation."
"The President highlighted that the Government has allocated a quota for the minorities in the Government service, Senate, National and Provincial Assembly and appointed a Christian as Minister for Minorities to ensure appropriate representative of minorities.”
“Bishop Michael Nazir Ali commended these measures and also the unprecedented recent appointment of a Minority Member as High Court Judge."
Since 1986 there have been numerous cases of communities being attacked, and no government has ever been able to legislate against fanaticism. There are many things that could be done to encourage peace and harmony between all groups. Separating Mosque and state would be one. Abolishing discriminatory laws would be another. Revising the constitution to protect all religions could be an option. These are only pipe dreams.
In practice, look out for politicians mouthing platitudes, feigning concern and receiving more cash handouts from foreign governments. While this happens, expect the same violence, discrimination, injustice and bigotry to continue unabated.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Adrian Morgan is a British based writer and artist. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. He is currently compiling a book on the demise of democracy and the growth of extremism in Britain.