Women protesting Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
A 30-year-old Pakistani woman who grew up in Lahore said her Christian parents taught her specific answers to keep from falling prey to accusations under the blasphemy statutes, such as: “I am a Christian, I can only tell you about Him.” Today they coach their children differently. “Some parents don’t even tell their children about Jesus, because they are scared they will go to school and say something wrong,” she said.
“Christians constantly face questions like, ‘What do you think of the Quran, do you like it?’ and, ‘What do you think of Muhammad?’” she said. These questions used to be easier to answer, and they had formulas. But unfortunately those are not working any more. We just tell children, “Don’t talk about religion in school. This is shaky ground now.”
An entire generation is potentially growing up not knowing their faith for fear that it will lead to disastrous schoolyard talk. Moreover, children required to take Islamic studies in school are in danger with a single misstep. “If they write anything or misspell anything to do with the prophet Muhammad, they can be in serious danger,” a source said.
The blasphemy statutes signal to non-Muslims that they are second-class or “dhimmi” status citizens who must stay within narrow social boundaries. Personal vendettas from neighbors, co-workers and rivals are the most common reasons blasphemy law cases are filed, according to Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “There are more victims from mobs and vigilantes than from the government itself, but the government bears responsibility because it does not protect the victims,” he said.
Thousands of Pakistanis who think and believe differently than mainstream Muslims are at risk of being slandered under the blasphemy law. Conviction under Section 295-C of the blasphemy law for derogatory comments about Muhammad is punishable by death or life imprisonment, which in Pakistan, is 25 years. Curiously, accusers in blasphemy cases cannot repeal the alleged derogatory comments without risk of being accused of blasphemy themselves.
On July 19, 2010, Rev. Rashid Emmanuel, 32, and his 30-year-old brother Sajid Emmanuel were shot, days after handwriting experts notified police that signatures on papers denigrating Muhammad did not match those of the accused. Expected to be exonerated, the two leaders of United Ministries Pakistan were being led in handcuffs under police custody back to jail when they were shot and killed.
Last November a district judge stunned the nation and the international community by handing down a death sentence to Asia Noreen, Christian mother of two children and stepmother to three, for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad. Subsequently three politicians spoke out against the blasphemy law that put Asia Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) in prison. Two of them, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, and Shabaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs, were killed for standing up for Noreen and against the blasphemy law. The third one remains in hiding for fear of her life.
Most recently, 40-year-old Arif Masih, was arrested from his house on April 5 after Muslims accused him of ripping pages of the Quran and writing a threatening letter ordering them to become Christians. His brother claims that a neighbor fabricated the accusations in order to acquire property adjacent to that of Masih’s.
According to Sara Taseer Shoaib, daughter of the late Taseer, the reasons for this shift to the ultra-right are many, including the blasphemy law serves to deflect attention from the real issues of poverty and lack of hope; there is an increasing trend to blame all woes on the West; and there is a prevailing sense of a need to defend Islam. “For the extremists, it’s no longer making Pakistan a Muslim country, but how they use Pakistan to promote the cause of Islam across the world,” she said. “It’s not for love of the nation, or national identity, but entirely about religious identity.” While the murders of Bhatti and Taseer have helped to remove a “Defamation of Religions” resolution from United Nations consideration – for now – the assassinations have also brought movement toward amending the blasphemy laws in Pakistan to a standstill.
Father, we are saddened by the strict blasphemy laws that Pakistani Christians face on a daily basis, and we pray that accusations and persecution against them would stop. We pray for Your favor on the Christians who are in the midst of life-threatening circumstances, and we pray for a miraculous turn-around in the laws that prevent Christians from sharing their faith. Please reign over the government officials and influential leaders, and may there even be conversions in the police force so that the nation can become not only tolerant but also accepting of Christianity. Amen