Three more cases of blasphemy accusations have emerged in Pakistan, even after a Christian couple’s beating to death and burning in a brick kiln after allegations of blasphemy horrified the world, including the metropolitan elite in the country.
The Christian couple were killed over suspicions of desecrating the Qur’an on November 4. The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed the resolve to bring the perpetrators “to justice” and appointed Senator Kamran Michael to be the focal person in the case.
Condemnation from top religious clerics gave some hope to human rights defenders for some positive change. The Pakistani police arrested dozens of suspects in connection with the lynching of the couple but all these measures have failed to curb the rising levels of discrimination against Christians.
London-based Minority Rights Group International in its new report published yesterday (Dec. 8th) Searching for Security: The Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan confirms this trend:
“The environment in which minorities find themselves is characterized by hate speech, frequent invocation of blasphemy laws and increasingly violent attacks on places of worship.”
It was in this hostile environment that only four days after the Christian couple was beaten and burned to death, 24 bonded-labourer Christian families, also working at a brick kiln, narrowly escaped a mob attack, only due to the intervention of a police contingent which happened to be passing through the village.
World Watch Monitor visited the brick kiln the next day and interviewed a number of people involved to piece together this account of events:
A copy of the Qur’an was recovered from a water channel in Pajian (Bus) Stop, Raiwind, on November 9. The Qur’an was handed to cleric Muhammad Hussein who runs a mosque in the nearby village. After this, an announcement was made from the mosque that desecration of the Qur’an had taken place.
In the absence of any obvious suspect, nearby Christians were rumoured by locals to be the ones who could have done this crime. As a mob began pouring in after the announcement, some extremist Muslims pressed these Christian bonded workers to declare on oath that they hadn’t done this act “or else the Kasur episode could be repeated.”
The Christians immediately informed the brick kiln owner, Hajji Ikram, about this demand and the rising level of anger among the protestors. Hajji told World Watch Monitor he found it very impractical to bring all his Christian workers out and make them take an oath. “I discussed with my son Muhammad Tayyab -what if the enraged mob were still unsatisfied, and the Kasur incident be repeated at our kiln.”
“Fearing any untoward situation, I told the Christians to immediately inform the police about the threat that neighboring Muslims have posed to them.”
It did not take long for the police to arrive and take control of the mob. Some of the Christians in the village told World Watch Monitor that about nine vehicles loaded with more than 100 policemen immediately arrived to protect the Christians, and remained deployed there for a couple of days.
Talking to World Watch Monitor, Saddar Superintendent of Police Ejaz Shafi Dogar said that on that day most of the police had been deployed at the annual gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat (an Islamic religious movement that aims at spiritual revival), which is only a few kilometres away from the village. “The program had ended and we were near the village when the emergency call from the Christians was received,” said Dogar.
“The police immediately took charge of the situation and resolved the matter peacefully. This all became possible because of the ready availability of the police; otherwise, things could have got worse,” Dogar said.
“The method prescribed in Islam for discarding a worn out copy of the Qur’an is burying it but many illiterate Muslims, though wrongly, believe that the worn out Qur’an should be drowned in clean running water,” Dogar said.
It is in this context that, out of reverence, someone threw a copy of the Qur’an into the canal from which a water channel comes to this village and ends near the brick kiln where Christian families worked.”
“The condition of the Qur’an was so deteriorated that it was later easy to convince the area Muslims that it had drifted all the way from the canal into the channel.”
Dogar says that there is no more danger for the Christian families working on the kiln.
Streets of LahoreWorld Watch Monitor
Nine Christians accused in burning of Qur’an pages
About 300 kilometres north of Lahore, nine Christians living in the capital have been named in a police First Information Report (FIR) only because their names were found on a list attached to the partially burned pages of the Qur’an.
Naheed Ahmed, who runs a tea stall in Islamabad, lodged a formal complaint [no. 596/14] with the Industrial Area Police Station that on November 20 he found partially burned pages of the Qur’an when he was returning from the mosque after saying the early morning prayer.
“I found [partially] burned pages of the Qur’an at the gate of Radio Pakistan. When I looked around, I found similar pages on both sides of the road, in front of the HBL Bank. I picked up all these pages and preserved them with utmost respect. Along with each burned Qur’anic page, another page was attached which had a list of names.”
The Station House Officer (SHO) Fiaz Khan Shinwari told World Watch Monitor that no arrest had been made so far and an investigation is underway. “I am working hard to expose the actual perpetrators behind this crime. So no arrest will be made until we reach the actual criminals.”
One of the persons nominated in the FIR is Pastor Arif Masih who told World Watch Monitor that he had no link with the burning of the pages of the Qur’an. “I don’t know who has done this heinous act, but I am sure that the perpetrator is very much against the Christian community.”
Human rights activist Basharat Khokhar told World Watch Monitor that the names of the nine people given in the list are of Christians living in a nearby slum area in Sector H-9. “The area police were assured that these Christians would not flee and if anyone is found guilty they would be handed in to the police.”
“After this assurance, the police are investigating without arresting these Christians.”
Sectarian clash gets a Christian man accused of blasphemy
About 200 kilometers from Islamabad, a 70-year-old Christian man was caught between two rival Sunni sects in Sargodha, when he painted a signboard fixed outside a mosque. Bashir Masih was hired to whitewash the walls of a mosque, including an iron signboard that had sacred Islamic words written on it.
Masih is the only breadwinner of the family and earns a wage of about 300 rupees (roughly $3) a day by whitewashing. On October 1, he was hired to whitewash the walls of Jamiya Mosque, Zill-e-Nabi and to paint the signboard fixed outside it. While Masih was doing his work, several people gathered and beat him for doing this. They handed him to the police claiming that he had committed blasphemy against Islam by applying paint on the board that had sacred words written on it. According to the FIR [no. 442/14] lodged by Muhammad Arshad, one of the caretakers of the mosque:
Arshad further stated that the men who had sent Masih had instructed him to write the “names of the people belong to his sect”. Arshad submitted that when he inquired about the incident from the people who had hired Masih, “they confirmed this fact, and also threatened to kill each one of us (ie. a different Sunni sect) if we tried to stop them in future.”
The Minorities’ Alliance of Pakistan Chairman Tahir Naveed Chaudhry told World Watch Monitor that Masih was rescued with the efforts of the local Christians. “The police and the complainant party were assured that Masih had no role in the sectarian clash, and that he would be available whenever the police needed him for investigation.”
“We are trying to resolve this case without any further litigation, so that Masih is saved from further social and economic fallout after being accused of blasphemy.”
According to the data quoted by the Human Rights Without Frontiers International, about 4000 blasphemy cases have been registered since these laws were enacted in 1980s. Out of these, 49% are against Muslims, 26% against Ahmadis (an offshoot of Islam now constitutionally declared non-Muslim in Pakistan), 21 % against Christians and 4 % against others.
According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, at least 54 people have been murdered in Pakistan in extrajudicial killings since 1990: 25 were Muslims, 17 were Christian, 5 were Ahmadis, 1 Hindu, 1 Buddhist and 5 without their faith identified.
Since they account for only 1.6 percent of the total population, the vulnerability of Christians is shown by their high representation in these quoted figures. The Minority Rights Group International report also notes:
“Since 2001, violence and discrimination against Christians has increased. Seen as connected to the ‘West’ due to their faith, Christians have at times been scapegoated for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the immense human suffering seen as a consequence of interventions in other countries with large Muslim populations”.
Reasons for Christians’ high representation in the data also include poverty, lack of social or political strength, illiteracy, and the stereotypical perception among Muslims that Christians in general are against the country and their religion.