in By Amanda Griffin, Pakistan, Religious Freedom Report, Shahbaz Bhatti
Christians living in ‘7 lanes’ district of Gulshan Iqbal Town, came under fire from Muslim extremists displaced to the neighbourhood from the tribal area bordering Pakistan. The Christian community erected walls blocking the seven lanes for security after a spate of killings and other violence.
Pakistan, an overview of persecution and the blasphemy laws
Pakistan. A country where the Christian minority experiences terrible persecution and discrimination, simply because of their faith.
One tool of discrimination used against Christians or other minorities is the “Blasphemy Law”. In 1986, the so-called blasphemy law was enacted in Pakistan. In principle, the law protects all religions from offences, but it provides for severe and draconian punishments to offences and blasphemies against Islam: and the 1,300 people along the way accused of transgressing the blasphemy laws since it was instated. A simple suspicion or a statement would be enough to imprison a person, and the burden of proof is placed on the accused, who is left to prove his, or her, innocence. So far, no one who has been found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death has actually been executed. Though one significant case that drew worldwide attention almost saw it through. It involved a woman named Asia Bibi.
Asia Bibi, Christian mother of five
Ms. Bibi, a Christian woman from a simple village, living a simple life as a mother of five children—and who in fact has never even left her small surroundings even to go to the capital of Islamabad—when one day a small action on her part would devastate her entire life, giving rise to accusations of blasphemy. The accusation was followed by a mob attacking her in the streets along with her young daughter–they were beaten and finally Ms. Bibi was arrested. Having no credibility, as a woman and as a Christian within the Pakistani legal system, she was found guilty of blasphemy and placed on death row where she remained in isolation and awful conditions for the better part of 10 years until very recently.
Eisham Ashiq, 19 year old daughter of Asia Bibi, & Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Bibi during their October 2018 visit to the UK as guests of Aid to the Church in Need.
On October 31, 2018 – after her appeal to overthrow the death penalty was pushed back many times because judges were unwilling to hear the case, it is assumed for fear of reprisals. She was finally and joyously for her family and supporters around the world–acquitted of the crime, found not guilty. But she could not be freed from her imprisonment, not let out to be with her family because riots and unrest demanding she be put to death for her crime, ensued in the country.
Unfortunately, even if she is now out of prison, she has still not been able to be with her family for the threats of violence persist. Recent arrests of protest leaders have maintained the ongoing threat to her life.
Like in other moments of Pakistan’s recent history, this mass reaction to uphold the death sentence demonstrates the gravity of the situation local Christians in Pakistan find themselves in. In the past, and during Asia Bibi’s trial, other brave people spoke out for her freedom and minority rights. Many were silenced for doing so, and ultimately some were assassinated. This calls to mind a brave Christian man named Shahbaz Bhatti.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian and Federal Minister for Minority Affairs
His courageous pursuit towards realizing his dream of religious freedom and equality for all led him in 2008 to being appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. Within a short time, he managed to introduce a law guaranteeing minorities a five-percent share of public posts, including parliament. He became personally involved in difficult issues confronting ordinary people, and in particular sensitive to the two percent minority Christian community. He spoke out for the voiceless, and for among others, Asia Bibi. His open criticism about the misuse of the blasphemy law resulted in an ever-growing number of threats and although conscious of the mounting very real danger, he very bravely did not back down from his commitment to help discriminated religious minorities.
On March 2, 2011, his car was sprayed with gunfire outside his Islamabad home. Twenty-seven bullets found their target.
A cemetery in Gojra, diocese of Faisalabad – grave of Shahbaz Bhatti -Pakistan 2011 Photo: Magdalena Wolnik
Two years before his death, in yet another quote from a book that has become his spiritual testament, Bhatti wrote, “My human body is wounded but these wounds are not physical wounds, they are the wounds of worry, of grief, of the sorrows and pains of the persecuted Christians of Pakistan, of the needy and the oppressed Christians. We are one family with the people who are in need. Thus as a family we should share the sorrows, the griefs and the sufferings of each other.” I am deeply convinced that these words remain equally relevant today, as much to me, as to us all.
Now Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi said of him that he was “a man with a dream, with a vision, that people of different faiths can live here together.”
Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab
Another brave man assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. On January 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was assassinated in Islamabad by his bodyguard, who disagreed with Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Pakistan, May 2017 Women and children during Holy Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.
The abduction and rape of women as a tool
Another tool used to discriminate and persecute Christians, Christian women in particular, according to the Religious Freedom in the World Report released recently by Aid to the Church in Need International*, the abduction of women in minorities is also on the rise in 2018. Often, authorities tell parents the girl has converted and married of her own free will. Many families don’t report the crime, or withdraw the case, because of threats against other women and girls in the family.
Such abductions are part of a wider pattern of sexual violence against religious-minority women: more powerless before courts than Muslim women, they are a soft target as rapists know prosecution is unlikely. If a woman cannot prove sex happened against her will, she can be accused of adultery and face arrest, flogging or even stoning to death. For this reason, many women are frightened to report sexual violence committed against them or their loved ones.
Mr. Bhatti’s call for prayers for freedom of religion and equality along with so many other brave souls have finally made a difference for Asia Bibi and her family who have never ceased advocating, fighting and praying for her. Reunited, but still awaiting a firm invitation from a safe country, like Canada.
Pakistan, May 2017 – At the St. Joseph’s Colony. Visit of the St. Joseph’s Colony, located in a Christian-dominated neighborhood of Lahore, where an enraged mob torched dozens of houses following allegations of blasphemy against a Christian man in March 2013. It appeared that the man had been falsely accused of blasphemy.
To learn more about the volatile and increasingly dangerous situation of Christians in Pakistan, the Pakistani penal code and the “blasphemy laws” introduced in 1986, please consult the full length Religious Freedom in the World Report 2018 with extensive data on the subject compiled on the international website where you can view by country: Pakistan.
By Amanda Griffin, ACN CANADA
Sources: ACN Religious Freedom Report 2016 and 2018, the Catholic Register and various ACN Press articles
*Other sources: Human Rights Council of Pakistan and the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan