The EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figeľ, told Pakistani officials during a recent visit that the renewal of their export privileges to Europe depends on the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy since 2010.
“The EU countries have started believing that Pakistan’s Supreme Court, appeasing certain political and fundamental forces of Pakistan, is intentionally delaying the hearing of Asia Bibi,” an EU press release earlier this month stated, adding that the renewal of Pakistan’s GPS Plus trading status will be linked to the outcome of her case.
Asia Bibi, mother of five children, has been in prison since 2009 and was sentenced to death for blasphemy a year later. She appealed but her last appearance before Pakistan’s Supreme Court, 18 months ago, was adjourned amid protests.
Blasphemy against Islam is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. In November, protests against potential reform of the current laws brought life to a halt in the capital, Islamabad, and though international pressure increases for the government to change its legislation, conservative Muslim groups continue to vehemently refuse.
‘The fire has reached their own home’
Jan Figeľ was in Pakistan in December, one week before the bombing of a church in the south-western city of Quetta, capital of the impoverished Balochistan province, to take part in the set-up of an inter-faith advisory commission to help stop misuse of the blasphemy law – often used to settle person scores.
“The law is abused and misused when they don’t like you,” Javed Masih from Pakistan told World Watch Monitor. “To have a case, one needs three testimonies, and accusers often come with false witnesses. Also, mob rule happens regularly because of the belief that if one kills an ‘infidel’, one goes to heaven.”
Masih, 44, knows from experience what it means to get in the way of radical Muslims. He wrote a book about a Christian Federal Minister killed in 2011 because of his support for Asia Bibi and reform of the blasphemy law, and Masih was threatened as a result of his book. So much so that in 2013 he and his family fled the country.
Since the murder of the federal minister and another politician in 2011, the blasphemy law has become stronger, Masih says: “The message to the whole of society was: ‘Don’t raise your voice against this law.’ But the fire has reached their own home because the abuse of the law not only involves Christians; Muslims are victims as well.”
‘This is a good religion too’
Pakistan was founded as a secular nation in 1947, but later became an Islamic republic and Christians say they now feel like “second-class citizens”. All passports state a person’s religion, while students, if they want to continue to higher education, have to take a class in Islamic studies before they can sit the entry exams.
Masih grew up in a Catholic family, the eldest of three siblings, and initially went to a public school in his village. Although at that time the Islamisation of the country had only just started, he remembers feeling isolated from the other children when they went for prayers to the local mosque every afternoon and he remained behind. He recalls how, after they returned, they would say: “Why don’t you come with us – this is a good religion too.”
“From the beginning you grow up with an inferiority complex,” he says. “At school there would be a water-cooler with one glass, but as a Christian you could not touch that glass and teachers and children would tell you that you are an ‘infidel’. You were already learning you are less than the others, and you would wonder why you were born as a Christian and why you couldn’t be part of Islam.”
As the disadvantage and discrimination starts at an early age, many Christians end up working in menial jobs. Data collected by World Watch Monitor in 2013 showed that, despite Pakistani Christians comprising only 1.5 per cent of the total population, they accounted for more than 80 per cent of the janitorial workforce.
Younas Ejaz, a catechist from Lahore, told Agenzia Fides that Christians “need to get out of the vicious circle of considering ourselves only suitable for cleaning sewers”.
“Very often the problem for Christians in Pakistan is their own mentality that penalises them, lacks self-esteem and marginalises them,” he told Fides.
“Education is the way to achieve progress,” says Masih, who studied attended university, studying Theology, English and Human Resource Management.
In 1996 he founded a school in a poor Christian neighbourhood in Rawalpindi, a twin city of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Today the St Peter’s Catholic secondary school offers education to 300 children, who are mostly Christian, though all are welcome.
World Watch Monitor reported in 2016 how two reports criticised Pakistan’s education policy. ‘Freedom from Suffocating Education’ by Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace said school textbooks were riddled with “hate material”. Meanwhile a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said “the trend towards a more biased curriculum against religious minorities is accelerating”.