The medical superintendent of a hospital in Pakistan has been accused of forcing its Christian staff to memorise Quranic verses. Article 20 of the Pakistan Constitution guarantees that no-one can be forced into any religious practice or belief against his/her own faith.
Dr. Muhammad Sarfaraz was appointed Medical Superintendent of Government Mian Mir* Hospital in Lahore in early April.
Marshal Ashiq, 23, who works as a security-in-charge at the hospital, submitted an application to Mustafabad Police Station seeking protection from – as well as legal action against – Sarfaraz for forcing him to memorise Quranic verses.
A local English-language newspaper reported that Christian staff were marked as absent if they did not attend the hospital’s morning assembly – such as is held in schools – which all staff (and even patients) were asked to attend to listen to Islamic preaching.
In addition, Christian ward assistant Adnan Masih says he was also slapped by the superintendent for not memorising Quranic verses.
Mr. Ashiq said in his application to the police that, when he clearly rejected obeying Dr. Sarfaraz’s order, Sarfaraz had him detained for two days as punishment.
However, he told World Watch Monitor that the police seem to be trying to “cover up” his application.
Earlier, an investigation team headed by the North Cantonment Circle Deputy Superintendent of Police, Kamran Zaman, had conducted an inquiry into misconduct by the medical superintendent, and had sent the report to the Punjab Health Department for further action.
Based on that inquiry, the Cantonment Superintendent of Police, Rana Tahir, met Mr. Ashiq and other concerned Christians on 9 May.
“Tahir took serious note of the incident and during our meeting informed several high officials, including the Secretary of Health and Health Minister, on the phone that the situation warranted an urgent response,” Mr. Ashiq told World Watch Monitor. “I expressed my concern: ‘What if [Sarfaraz] accuses me of defamation of Islam because of refusing to memorise the Quran?’ The police assured they’d take care of this, and indicated that the Health Department is probably going to remove Sarfaraz from his position. But until [he leaves] I am not now going to work at the hospital.
“The medical superintendent has reached out requesting reconciliation, and does not want me to press charges. As a poor Christian, I cannot take a legal stand against him. But I went to the police because I feared he may implicate [me] in religiously motivated criminal proceedings, such as in the blasphemy laws.”
Deputy Superintendent Zaman, who headed the investigation team, told World Watch Monitor that it had found Sarfaraz guilty of misconduct with hospital staff “but [my] team could not confirm if the superintendent actually forced the Christian staff to memorise the Quran.” However, the senior police officer confirmed that Sarfaraz had ordered a morning assembly, although he added: “When the Lord Mayor of Lahore, [retired] Colonel Mubashir Javed came to know about this, he ordered a stop to it.”
However, World Watch Monitor has found no other independent evidence that Colonel Javed had intervened in, or even inquired about, the incident.
Mr. Ashiq, however, also confirmed that the morning assembly was abruptly stopped, without exactly explaining the reason. Paramedical and medical staff had held a protest against Dr. Sarfaraz, but he is still hospital superintendent.
Mr. Ashiq said that on 6 April he was put in charge of security. “Sarfaraz told me there was no issue of security, so all security guards water parts of the grounds through the day. Then he ordered me to recite verses from the Quran. At that time I didn’t argue. But when he asked me later, I clearly told him that I cannot do this,” he said.
The most senior nurse, Sister Sheeba Mehtab, told World Watch Monitor that after he took charge, the superintendent met with all the nurses.
“When he came to know that I and another nurse were Christians, [Sarfaraz] asked two Muslim nurses to help us memorise a Quranic Sura,” she said. “I didn’t argue, but then the two didn’t mention it to me. I was on a round with the superintendent when we passed Marshal Ashiq. The superintendent made him stop and asked him if he was doing what he’d asked him. When Marshal refused [to recite the Quran], he called him names.
Mr. Ashiq says that he had already decided he would resign, rather than cave into pressure to recite the Quran; what happened to him was witnessed by Sister Sheeba and other staff.
“Later the superintendent ordered security guards to detain me in the storeroom as a punishment and this was repeated the next day too, when I came to the hospital,” he said.
“I told Sarfaraz I cannot recite the verses and would prefer to resign. He told me to come to his room. When I went, he said I could stay at home and was free to do that. My colleagues advised me not to do this, because if I was absent, then he could send an absentee report and get me removed from service.”
Sister Mehtab says the superintendent was not rude and insulting only to Christians, but was equally bad tempered and unreasonable to everyone. “He even asked nurses to tell him their mathematics tables,” she said.
On condition of anonymity, a doctor told World Watch Monitor that doctors hadn’t instigated Mr. Ashiq to initiate legal action, but that Dr. Sarfaraz was trying to cover up for his own unreasonable behaviour. “If he forced Ashiq to recite Quranic verses, then this is his own act. If he has slapped a staff member in the operating theatre, then it his own act,” the doctor said, adding that “the government must remove him” because he was in conflict with everyone.
World Watch Monitor tried to speak to Dr. Sarfaraz to hear his account of events, but was unable to reach him.
In recent months, many educated people have been found to be involved in religious extremism in Pakistan. A medical student was arrested only days before Easter: the ISIS-linked young woman had planned to target a Christian neighbourhood at Easter. Religious minorities say they feel unsafe in this environment, fearing extremism has penetrated Pakistani society.
*Mian Mir was a 17th century Sufi saint: Sufis are known for a more “mystical” Islam. Mian Mir laid the foundation stone of the central worship place of Sikhs, known as Harmandir Sahib, and is considered a symbol of interfaith harmony.