October 15, 2009 Volume 23, Number 15
Pakistani Christians bludgeoned by blasphemy law
By Geoffrey P. Johnston | Special to ChristianWeek
A banner memorializes a family of Pakistani Christians burned to death in their house.
Religious radicalism is on the upswing in Pakistan, posing a mortal threat to the Muslim-majority country's tiny Christian community. And an unjust blasphemy law is the weapon of choice for extremists determined to terrorize and kill the followers of Jesus Christ.
The rise of powerful Islamist groups in Pakistan is "very concerning" for Christians and other religious minorities in the south Asian country, says Knox Thames, who serves on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent organization that advises the U.S. government on issues of religious liberty around the world.
"Extremist groups have shown a willingness to use violence to intimidate [and impose] their version of Islamic law and to create a society that supports their view of the world," Thames said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C. office. And the Islamist world view "is not one that respects human rights and religious freedom."
According to the Catholic News Service, Christians make up less than two percent of Pakistan's 160 million people.
Punishable by death
Under Pakistan's penal code, blasphemy is the most serious of criminal offences, punishable by death or life imprisonment. Allegations of blasphemy usually involve defaming the Prophet Muhammad, or defiling the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
According to the 2009 annual report of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, blasphemy allegations in Pakistan are "often false." But even an unsubstantiated allegation results in the "lengthy detention" of the accused.
"The blasphemy law is used to stimulate "the feelings of the extremists against the Christians," says a Pakistani Christian activist.
Although Pakistan has yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, some of the accused "have been attacked, even killed, by violent extremists, including while in police custody," reports the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
No proof needed
The Commission's annual report also notes that blasphemy allegations don't require evidence or proof of intent. Moreover, there is no penalty for levelling a false accusation. As a result, false allegations "are commonly used by extremists to intimidate members of religious minorities and others with whom they disagree."
The Pakistani Christian, whose name has been omitted to protect his safety, reports that "hundreds of innocents have been killed or imprisoned by religious fundamentalists," because the blasphemy laws "surreptitiously encourage hostility towards minorities and are a licence for abuse of human rights."
Another source in Pakistan agrees that the "impact of [the] blasphemy law is very bad." He says militants have attempted to drive Christians from their communities by falsely accusing them of blasphemy. "If the Christians resist, then they [the militants] demolish the houses of the persecuted people."
On August 1, 2009, the Christian enclave in the town of Gojra in Punjab Province was engulfed in the flames of hatred, ignited by a blasphemy allegation.
Incited to violence by local Muslim clerics and extremists, a Muslim mob rampaged through the northeastern town, setting fire to homes owned by Christians. According to Knox Thames, 100 homes were destroyed. A Pakistani Christian who personally inspected the ruins told ChristianWeek that the number of houses looted and set ablaze was closer to 180.
Six members of a Christian family, including four women and two children, were burnt alive at Gojra. The mob also shot and burned an adult male family member.
At a press conference held in the immediate aftermath of the Gojra incident, Shahbaz Bhatti, a political progressive and Pakistan's federal minister for minorities, stated: "Allegations of desecration of the Holy Koran, which were used as an excuse by banned groups to foment such a big scale of violence, were baseless and without grounds."
Despite Bhatti's pledge to amend Pakistan's blasphemy law, sources in Pakistan continue to report cases of Christians being persecuted for blasphemy. And tensions are again rising in Gojra.
Christians in Pakistan are asking for prayer from their Canadian brothers and sisters.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario.