Exclusive: Pakistan: Abuse of Christians and Other Religious Minorities (Part One of Three)

by ADRIAN MORGAN October 6, 2009
 
This year, Christians in Pakistan have suffered their worst persecutions for a decade. As a percentage of the population in the predominantly Muslim country, Christians number less than five percent. This year, seven Christians were burned alive in mob violence at Gojra in Punjab province. Four of these were women and one was a four-year-old child. In other parts, homes and churches have been destroyed and hundreds of Christians have been forced to flee their homes.
 
Pakistan's discriminatory blasphemy laws have continued to be used to oppress minorities. As soon as a police complaint (FIR or First Information Report) is made about blasphemy the accused is compulsorily remanded in custody until trial. One Christian individual who was detained in this manner died violently on September 15th, even though the police who incarcerated him attempted to pass off his death as a suicide. In almost all the cases of legislative oppression and mob violence against Christians, blasphemy has been invoked as justification.
 
Recently Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari was on an international diplomatic tour, in which he visited Rome for three days. On Wednesday September 30th, he met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and signed an agreement on intelligence-sharing and military cooperation. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan was briefly mentioned.
 
Zardari said: "We are confronting the problem of religious minorities in Pakistan. We support all religious minorities in our country. They have the same rights, whether it is their religious practices or political rights." Berlusconi confirmed this, noting that he "found president Zardari to be very attentive."
 

 
The following day (October 1st) Zardari visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Apostolic Palace of Castelgandolfo. The Vatican Press Office stated: "The cordial discussions provided an opportunity to examine the current situation in Pakistan, with particular reference to the fight against terrorism and the commitment to create a society more tolerant and harmonious in all its aspects."
 
The Blasphemy Laws
 

 
The blasphemy laws as they are now employed derive from amendments made in the 1980s to Pakistan's Penal Code (PPC). This legislation derives from 1860, as a set of statutes introduced by the British Raj for the governance of West Pakistan, then a predominantly Urdu-speaking region of India. The controversial amendments were introduced by the Islamist military dictator General Zia ul-Haq. This individual deposed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and imposed martial law.
 
In 1980, ul-Haq introduced a Majlis-e-Shura (a council) of unelected advisers – many from the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party – to replace parliament. Later, he enacted sham elections. Zia ul-Haq retained connections with religious extremists, such as Maulana Muhammad Abdullah Shaheed who was imam at the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad. Ul-Haq gave himself the role of President, with power above prime minister, and ruled Pakistan until his death in a plane crash on August 17, 1988. The main blasphemy amendments were introduced while Pakistan was under a military dictatorship, and not under a civil democracy.
 
Part XV of the PPC lists offenses involving religion. Originally, there were only four laws of this nature, numbered from 295 to 298, but these have been expanded to number 10. The laws generally invoked to oppress Christians (and also Hindus and the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect deemed by some to be heretical) are all the results of amendments. These are Sections 295-B, 295-C and less frequently Section 298-A.
 
Section 295-B which outlaws "Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an" originally arose as an amendment introduced in 1927 and revised in 1982. This states: "Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life."
 
Section 295-C prohibits "Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet" and was introduced with the approval of General Zia ul-Haq and the Islamist Jammat-e-Islami party in 1982 and revised in 1986. This statute reads: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."
 
The death penalty option to Section 295-C was added in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, III of 1986, S. 2
 
Section 298-A deals with "Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages". This amendment was introduced in 1980, and states: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife (Ummul Mumineen), or members of the family (Ahle-bait), of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), or any of the righteous Caliphs (Khulafa-e-Rashideen) or companions (Sahaaba) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
 
Other sections of the PPC - 298-B and 298-C specifically target the Ahmadiyya. The first of these, introduced in 1980 prevents the Ahmadiyya from using devotional names to anyone other than Prophet Mohammed and his companions, and from calling any place of worship associated with anyone other than Mohammed as a "masjid" (mosque).
 
Section 298-C was also introduced in 1980, with a further amendment made in 1984. This forbids any Ahmadiyya from calling him- or herself a "Muslim" and forbids any proselytizing of their religion. Sections 298-B and C both carry penalties of up to three years' imprisonment and/or a fine.
 
Events Leading Up to the Gojra Violence
 
The violence in Gojra, in which Christians were burned to death, stemmed from a dispute that involved accusations of blasphemy. On Tuesday June 30th, a month before the atrocities, more than 110 Christian families were forced to flee their homes in the village of Bahminwala (Bahmina Wala) in Kasur district in Punjab province. The Christians were forced to hide in the fields around the village. They were driven out because Muslim mobs, encouraged by the local mosque, accused them all of blasphemy after one of their number had been listed in an FIR report.
 
The rampaging began after an incident that had occurred on the previous day. An argument broke out between a Christian farm laborer, 38-year old Sardar Masih (Arif Mashi), who was driving a tractor, and a Muslim riding a bicycle who came by and demanded that he should be allowed to pass. When this did not happen, the Muslim (Muhammad Riaz) apparently accused the Christian of being lower caste and a fight broke out.
 
According to Pakistan Christian Post, a mosque imam called Qari Lateef (Qari Latif) was consulted, and charges were filed against Sardar Masih at the local police station. These charges did not – it seems – include blasphemy, but the imam used his mosque loudspeaker system to make such accusations. In the ensuing unrest, electricity meters on Christian houses were smashed, Christian villagers were beaten, and houses were looted and burned.
 
The Daily Times newspaper sent journalists to the region. They met Shaan Ali and his brother Imran, who had both led the mob that attacked the Christians. Shaan Ali claimed, "The Christians had committed blasphemy." He could not specify who had committed this blasphemy. Ahmed Ali Dhillon of the provincial assembly confirmed that Qari Latif, imam at the village mosque, had instigated the violence against the Christians.
 
A few days later after the violence, while Christians made public protest at their treatment, Pakistan's minority minister Shahbaz Bhatti visited the village. Bhatti promised compensation to victims of the violence. Chief Justice Khawaja Mohammed Sharif at the Lahore High Court demanded that the local police chief for Kasur district appear to give their account of the events.
 
The events at Gojra followed – like so many similar cases of mob violence – the same trajectory as at Kasur, but the outcome was more horrific. Gojra is situated 99 miles west of Lahore in Punjab province. The spark that triggered the rampage began with an accusation that blasphemy had occurred. It was alleged that three Christians, Mukhtar Masih, Talib Masih and Talib's son Imran, had desecrated pages of the Koran at a wedding ceremony in Korrian, outside Gojra town.
 
A case was registered against the three men under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code, but they were not immediately arrested. It is traditional for money to be presented at a wedding, and for those who are poor, "pretend money" is displayed. The Christians had allegedly cut up pieces of paper to look like money. There was no evidence from any sources that a Koran had actually been desecrated.
 
On Thursday July 30th, fearing reprisals for the alleged desecration, residents had fled from Korrian, leaving many houses empty. A mob gathered, and set fire to about 50 houses, also burning cattle. A kangaroo court was held in which Talib Masih was asked to apologize for desecrating Islam's holy book. He denied having desecrated pages from the Koran and refused to apologize. Two churches were also set ablaze. The mob blocked the main road to the village, to prevent fire engines from putting out the fires.
 
Imran Masih was officially charged under Section 295-B of the Penal Code. Pages of the Koran were allegedly found among garbage outside the scene of the wedding on July 26th.
 
A second incident followed, on Saturday August 1st, which filled international newswires for the scale of its ferocity. The police did nothing as a mob of fanatical Muslims entered the town of Gojra and started to shoot. They threw Molotov cocktails at houses, burning down forty domiciles. The assailants were said to be from Lashkar-e-Jhvangi or its associated group Sipah-e-Saba. These groups have been involved in previous instances of sectarian violence against any minority that is not Sunni Muslim, including attacks upon Shia civilians.
 
Six of the individuals who died came from one family, that of Almass Hameed. A week after the event, Almass Hameed spoke from his hospital bed: "I think there were thousands. My elderly father went out to see what was happening and they shot and killed him. We were all shocked and crying. Before we knew it, they were breaking into the house."
 

 
Mr. Hameed described how he and nine members of his extended family hid in an upstairs bedroom, and heard members of the mob breaking in, smashing items and dividing valuables between them. Some intruders beat on the bedroom door where Almass and others were hiding. The intruders threatened to burn them alive, and soon he could smell smoke as flames spread. He recalled: "We just couldn't breathe. I grabbed my eldest son and managed to get out of the room through the flames, my brother came out with one of my daughters, but the rest were stuck and we had no way of rescuing them."
 
Those who remained in the bedroom were Almass' four-year old son Mousa, his 11-year-old daughter, his wife, her sister and her mother. Unable to escape, they were burned to death.
 

 
A Muslim youth blamed the event upon the Christians. He said: "We Muslims are the victims. We gathered to protest about what they did to the Koran in Korrian and just wanted to walk through their area, but they threw stones at us and fired shots. Of course it is bad that Christians died. But they provoked the Muslims here. I don't understand why everyone is on their side."
 
In the aftermath of the atrocity at Gojra, missionary schools were closed on Monday August 3rd.
 
A total of 800 individuals were charged with murder, including the local chief of police and the District Coordination Officer. Only 17 of these were actually named and placed in custody, with the remainder listed as "unknown" individuals. The charges had been brought by a local bishop. Shahbaz Sharif announced that 500,000 Rupees ($6,002) would be awarded for each family member that had died in the August 1st rioting.
 
The events in Gojra were to precipitate further attacks in a wave of "blasphemy hysteria". At Mudrike in Lahore, immediately after the Gojra arson deaths, a Muslim factory owner was falsely accused of blasphemy. The incident took place on Tuesday August 4th. It involved Mian Najib, the owner of East Leather, a leather-processing factory at Khatiala Virkan near Muridke. Najib removed an out-of-date Islamic calendar from the wall of the factory and, it is alleged, burned it. Calendars of this nature often have verses or quotations from the Koran upon them, and as such, any destruction of these quotations is seen as destruction of the Koran.
 
A worker at the factory called Moulvi Shabber claimed to have seen this act, and incited revenge for this act. A crowd of hundreds attacked the East Leather factory. In the ensuing violence, a security guard was killed, along with a security guard. Several others were injured.
 
On Wednesday, August 5th at Sanghur in Sindh province, a 60-year-old Muslim woman was accused of blasphemy, and her home became surrounded by a mob, led by a local shopkeeper who accused her of blasphemy. The shop owner had said that Akhtari Begum had thrown around some pages of the Koran inside his store. She, for her part, claimed that she had thrown the book in which her credit entries had been kept by the shopkeeper, onto the ground. Police took the woman into custody, apparently sparing her life.
 
Other Incidents
 
The fact that Muslims too can become innocent victims of mob violence may perhaps be the key to having the Blasphemy Laws revoked. Traditionally, extremist Islamic groups, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which had a part in writing the laws, have campaigned successfully for blasphemy laws to remain. In March 2008, for example, the Jamaat-e-Islami party (which seeks Sharia law and wants apostates from Islam to be executed under law) condemned political parties for ignoring its rallies in favor of enforcing the Blasphemy statutes.
 
The mention of agitation by the groups Lashkar-i-Zhvangi and Sipah-i-Sahaba in some of the recent attacks against the Christian minority suggests that the extremes of violence have been deliberately manipulated.
 
While the victims of the Gojra violence were buried, police took action against suspects and arrested 65 people, including Qari Abdul Khaliq Kashmiri, a leading figure in Sipah-i-Sahaba. The residence of Abid Farooqi, another member of the banned terror group, was raided, but Farooqi had fled. His father and two brothers were apprehended and taken into custody.
 
On November 12, 2005, a similar incident had taken place in Sangla Hill in Punjab province, where a false allegation of blasphemy had been made. Yousaf Masseh was accused of desecrating pages from the Koran, though it was claimed that he had been accused by two men who owed him money from gambling debts, and did not wish to pay. Masseh had been imprisoned, while a mob of about 1,500 Muslims, encouraged by loudspeaker announcements from a mosque, descended upon the Christian homes in Sangla HIll. Three churches, including a Catholic and a Protestant house of worship, a school, a youth hostel, a nunnery and two homes belonging to Protestant priests were destroyed.
 
Shortly after the orgy of destruction, Christian community leaders in Sangla Hill had been threatened over the phone by a man who identified himself as a member of Lashkar-i-Jhvangi. He warned them to accept his "deal" within two days or to "get ready to die."
 
Lashkar-i-Jhvangi was the group believed responsible for the kidnap and decapitation of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl. An offshoot of Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Jhvangi came into existence in 1996. It was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization on January 30, 2003. Both Lashkar-i-Jhvangi and Sipah-i-Sahaba had been banned by President Musharraf in Pakistan on August 14, 2001. Sipah-i-Sahaba had been formed in Punjab province in the 1980s. Both groups have a Deobandi philosophy (the ideology which governs the actions of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) aimed for a Sunni state in Pakistan under sharia law.
 
In April 2009, Christians came under threat from Taliban-supporting militants in a community near Sarjani Town in a suburb of Karachi, in Sindh province. Buildings, including two houses and about six shops, were set on fire. Roadside traders' stalls and carts were destroyed by fire. Gunfire broke out between groups and four people were injured. The violence broke out after graffiti on the walls of a church had been found on Wednesday April 22nd. The graffiti comprised of pro-Taliban slogans.
 
Christians responded by burning tires and throwing stones at passing vehicles. The two groups – Pakhtoons (Pashtun migrants from the Afghan borderlands) and Christians – faced each other down, and then gunfire broke out. Four people were injured, including an 11-year-old boy. One of the individuals who had been shot, a man called Irfan Masih, died later in hospital.
 
The graffiti which was chalked onto the wall of the Roman Catholic church in Sarjani town included: Taliban are coming," "Long live Taliban" and "Be prepared to pay Jizya or embrace Islam."
 
Jizya is a tax, listed in the Koran and the Hadiths, which non-Muslims were traditionally obliged to pay to Muslim overlords when a community was fully controlled by Islam and governed by the precepts of Sharia. In the Koran, Sura 9, verse 29, it is written (Yusufali's translation): "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
 
During the incident in the Christian settlement (called Khuda ki Basti) near Sarjani Town, police were present but had done nothing to stop the incident. When the shooting began, only Christians were injured.
 
On August 28th in the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, southwestern Pakistan, six Christians were shot dead and seven more were injured. For months before the atrocity, Christians in the region had been receiving letters from Islamic fundamentalists which ordered them to convert to Islam or to die.
 
The most recent incident of prejudice against the Christian community involved the Blasphemy Laws. A 25-year-old Christian man from Sialkot in northeastern Punjab province, close to the Indian border, was arrested on Friday September 11th, accused of desecrating the Koran. A mob of about 100 people, most of them young men, made the accusations against Fanish Masih, who sometimes went under the name of Robert. The mob went on the rampage through Sambrial district and attacked a Roman Catholic church, setting it alight.
 
The alleged incident that provoked the violence was a claim that a Christian had snatched a Koran from a 10-year-old girl and had then desecrated it. No authentication of the incident has appeared from other sources, and it seems that – like almost all alleged cases of Koran desecration – it could be a baseless myth.
 
On Tuesday September 15th, police announced that Fanish Masih had committed suicide in his cell. The young man had been kept in a separate cell, and police maintained that he had tried to commit suicide by hanging himself with a narrow cord. This version was immediately contested. Asma Jahangir, the head of HRCP, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, claimed that "This is death in custody and the police authorities are responsible."
 

 
Kamran Michael, the Punjabi provincial Minister for Minority Affairs said: "I have seen the body and there were torture marks on it." It is obvious that there is a deep gash on Robert's forehead, which appears to have been caused by impact from a sharp-edged object. The body was taken away by local Christians who demanded a private autopsy.
 
At the funeral of Fanish Masih on Wednesday September 16th, there was discontent. The body could not be buried in Fanish's native village of Jaithikey-Sambrial for fear of inflaming tensions again. Instead, a memorial service was held in the grounds of a Christian school in the industrial city of Sialkot. There was ill feeling on the night before the funeral, and some Christians blocked roads, threw stones at vehicles and trashed 13 shops. On the day that Fanish was interred, there were clashes with police, and nine Christians were arrested.
 

 
The day of the funeral, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Minorities demanded an official inquiry into the circumstances of Robert Fanish Masih's death in police custody.
 
While Pakistani newspaper editorials carried sincere expressions of regret about the treatment of Christian and other minorities in Pakistan, a bizarre turn of events took place in Toba Tek Singh, the district that included Gojra. On September 26th, it was announced that an individual called Ghulam Murtaza had filed a case against 129 Christians from Gojra.
 
Murtaza claimed that he had been among 12 Muslims who had been injured on August 1st, the day that seven Christians had been injured in Gojra. In this counterclaim, it was stated that one of the Muslims who was injured on the day of the rioting, Muhammad Asif, later died from injuries. The legal charges invoked the Anti-Terror Act as well as Sections from the Penal Code, including Section 295-C (insulting Prophet Mohammed), 280 (theft from a house), 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house etc.), 324 (Qatl-i-amd or attempting to cause death of another), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (being part of an unlawful assembly and guilty of committing a crime) and Section 342 (wrongful confinement).
 
The individuals listed in Murtaza's charge sheet included John Samuel, the Bishop of Gojra, and also Samuel's two sons, and a local administrator.
 
Six days before Ghulam Murtaza brought his extraordinary set of charges against members of Gojra's Christian community, 18 people who were held in custody for the violence of August 1st were released. A joint committee of Muslims and Christians, set up to enact reconciliation, had decided to declare the 18 individuals innocent. A similar committee had brought the same results – and consequence lack of punishment for offenders – in the aftermath of the Sangla Hill riots of 2005.
 
The Death of a Dream
 

 
When Pakistan broke free from British rule, it was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is hard to imagine that originally, the state of Pakistan was officially secular. Nowadays, Section 2 of the constitution maintains that "Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan." Jinnah was only in power for 13 months before he died. With him died the dream of a secular nation.
 
The current Constitution maintains in Section 20 A that, "subject to law, public order and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess and propagate his religion". Section 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code deliberately suppresses this basic right in relation to the Ahmadiyya. These believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their faith on March 23, 1889, is a prophet. In every other way they follow the tenets of the Koran, though they are banned by Saudi Arabia from performing one of the five pillars of Islam, making the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
 
One of the few heartening things to have emerged as a consequence of the recent attacks against Christians is a willingness on the part of respected Muslim commentators within Pakistan to voice their shock and shame at the events that have been allowed to take place on account of the Blasphemy Laws. For the first time in three decades, there appears to be a determination on the part of Pakistan's elite to discuss the removal of the contentious and divisive laws.
 
Several writers have gone back to the historic speech made by Muhammad Ali Jinnah on August 11, 1947, the day of Pakistan's Independence. As president of the new republic, Jinnah addressed the Constituent Assembly.
 
He included the following words: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State."
 
He added: "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 in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State."
 
The evidence is now incontrovertible: Pakistan is now a nation where Hindus, Christians and the "heretical" Ahmadiyya are minorities who have none of the freedoms that were described by Jinnah in his first speech as elected president. Jinnah was speaking of the need to frame a Constitution and what it should encompass. He railed against the corruption that had been endemic at the time of Independence. Acknowledging that Pakistan would have non-Muslims in its population, he urged that the state should work for the well being of everyone. He said: "If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make."
 
Pakistan has long abandoned the principles that brought it into being. The rule of Zia ul-Haq was the third military dictatorship since independence. Since 1947, only one government, the one that preceded this current one, has completed a full term of office, and that was blighted by emergency powers introduced by Musharraf at the end. The Blasphemy Laws, approved by Zia ul-Haq with the support of Islamic fundamentalists, have been a source of strife, a means by which personal scores can be settled, a pretext for communal violence. At a speech delivered after the funeral of Fanish Masih, Father Emanuel Yousaf Mani called on the current government to review the Blasphemy statutes. He told a press conference that since their introduction, 947 people, all of them non-Muslims, had been killed.
 
In Part Two, I will describe how previous attempts to amend the Blasphemy Laws have foundered in the face of fundamentalist opposition, and show how they have been used to settle scores and to turn minority groups into convenient scapegoats.
 
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.
 
 
 

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