A background to the blasphemy laws
The blasphemy law was first introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1860 by the British government as a means to protect the Muslim minority against the Hindu majority but offering all religions equal protection (Section 295).
In 1977, however, the late General Zia-ul-Huq began a process of Islamising the Pakistani constitution. In 1982, a presidential ordinance made defiling the Holy Qu’ran punishable by life imprisonment (Section 295-A and B), whilst in 1991, General Zia made Sharia Law the supreme law in Pakistan.
Under pressure from religious extremists, the blasphemy law was again amended in 1986 to include defamation of the Holy Prophet, whether directly or indirectly, both in spoken and written form, as well as by way of impersonation (Section 295-C). For the first time, blasphemy also carried the possibility of the death sentence.
When, in 1991, the Federal Shariah Court rescinded the option of life imprisonment, the death penalty became the automatic punishment for anyone found guilty of blasphemy. (From claas.org.uk)
In 1993 my family and I had been living in Pakistan for seven years. We were aware of the changes to the Blasphemy Law and some of our friends were worried about what these would mean for them and the Christian community. We were shocked when three Christians were convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
Salamat Masih, 11, Manzoor Masih, 38, and Rehmat Masih, 44, were accused of writing blasphemous remarks on a mosque wall eve though Salamat was illiterate. Manzoor was later shot and killed outside the court in Lahore on his way to a court hearing. Salamat was acquitted and had to flee the country.
I never thought then that 18 years later the situation would be worse, that the Blasphemy Laws would be increasingly misused and that more people would be accused, or that leading figures like the Governor of Punjab, Salaman Taseer, or the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabbaz Bhatti, would be assassinated for criticising the Blasphemy Law.
A second evening with Michelle Choudhray.
Michelle spoke about her shock at the news of Shabhaz Bhatti’s death, his consistent championing of Christians as minorities and said ” you can silence a man, but not his vision”.
That vision of a just country with equality for all is so far from reality in Pakistan at the moment, and this was brought home to us very forcibly when Michelle arranged for us to meet a Christian family affected by the Blasphemy law. We are very grateful to Michelle for setting this meeting up.
Shafqat was a young Christian man who had his own welding shop, and was doing well. Buiness was good. However another shop keeper who was a Muslim was jealous of his success and accused him of burning the Quran – under law 295B of the Blasphemy law.
This occurred in 1998, not long after the suicide of Bishop John Joseph, who took his own life in protest against the unjust treatment of Christians in Pakistan. Shafqat was accused of taking part in these protests, and it was announced in the mosque that he had committed blasphemy. A mob came to his shop, and he was arrested and put in prison.
His case came to the Session Court, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. During his time in prison Shafqat was in chains around his wrists and feet. The food was bad and the prison dirty and squalid. And in the heat of Pakistan that is bad news. Shafqat was beaten in prison. The blasphemy prisoners were kept under a more strict regime than anyone else, so life was tough.
The case was taken to the Appeal Court, and finally in 2002, three and a half years after he was arrested, Shafqat was aquitted.
Often in the West, when we hear such news, we think that this is the end of the story – now there is a chance for Shafqat and his family to rebuild his life. However Shafqat explained that this is far from the truth, and that his life since his release has just been an existence – a living hell – even 9 years later in 2011.
Since the original incident in 1998, Muslim extremists have threatened Shafqat and his family with a vigilante killing, so on his release he had to go into hiding. His wife and children had gone to stay with her parents for safety, and they joined him in his new city – all under an assumed identity. People in the church family helped facilitate this process. Now Shafqat can never go back to his home town of Faisalabad, and lives in fear of being found out.
Faisalabad is a large industrial town in Punjab. It is also gaining a reputation as a place of intolerance. In the last three years seven Christians have been murdered and lawyers who have taken on blasphemy cases have been beaten and intimidated.
The Muslim shop keeper who accused Shavka, took over his house and workshop. Shafqat’s dislocation to a new city has had massive impact on his family. For example Shavka’s elder daughter is now 15 years old, but has not recovered from the trauma and fear of this event. Yunika missed a lot of school and went through much fear and mental trauma. She is now back at school, but is in 4th grade – equivalent to Scottish Primary 4.
Shafqat’s three brothers and their families also had to move away from Faislabad, as they were related to a blasphemy accused, and were also discriminated against. As he told us all this – through an interpreter – Shafqat told his story with great dignity, yet the thing that was most striking was his demeanor, and the faces of his two children who were present. They were so still, as if much of their humanity had been worn away in the midst of their suffering, and that they are still numb.
Their story led to many other stories also being shared by those present, of many Christian families who also suffered in similar ways. We told them that we would take thier story to the Church in Scotland, so that people can understand the problems and heartache families face even after aquittal.
It was a heart rending visit, and we were very moved by what we heard and by what seemed like the hopelessness of it all.
And yet we remembered Jesus’ words:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5: 10-12.
So what can we do?
Shafqat and his friends asked us to pray
1. For people in prison still waiting for their appeals. Judges can put off appeals for as long as they feel like, and often they don’t want to hear a controversial case in case they themselves are threatened.
2. We need to pray for lawyers who take these cases on, because often they too can be threatened and attacked. Some lawyers today are under enormous pressure and fear for their lives.
3. We need to pray for those who have been aquitted – for healing, and for safety and wellbeing for them and their families as they try to recover from what has happened.
4. We need to give thanks for the courage of the Christain community, and for those different organisations trying to get the Blasphemy laws ammended – that they would be effective.
5. We need to pray for the President and government, that they won’t succumb to pressure from the Taliban and extremist Muslim groups – so they know that ammending the laws does not mean they favour corrupt Western values.
6. To pray for continuing international pressure from organisations such as CSW, human rights organisations and woman’s groups, working in the European parliament and in the UN.
If you are interested in finding out more, please come to our WMC conference at St Leonard’s in the Field Church in Perth on Saturday 12th of November from 10.30am to 3pm. This conference focusses on the plight of Minority Christians around the world. If you are interested in coming, please phone 01312255722
Although this issue is something that I’ve come across before, it isn’t something I’ve explored in as much detail as I have since arriving in Pakistan. To my shame, its taken this long to get an education in it. Fiona, Sandy and the numerous Christians we have spoken with here have facilitated that education.
One thing that struck me was how much our actions in the West affect the minorities here. After the incident with the caricatures in the Danish papers the Church here suffered more. After the US Pastor announced he wanted to burn a Qu’ran, the Churches here suffered. Christianity is associated with the West, and the West isn’t always the most poplular in Pakistan.
Last night I took many notes about what was said, about Shafqat’s story. I had my mind blown wide open. As I said on Facebook and Twitter: “Tonight is a night I will never forget, and if I do, I know I will have lost my humanity.” It wasn’t just the family we were meeting. It was the countless stories of others who have suffered under this law. The innocent who are stamped upon.
What struck me the most last night was their faces. Shafqat looked haunted. His face was gaunt and you could see the scars on his psyche playing out through his expression. His son and his daughter had a look about them that could have been mistaken for childlike innocence. But as you got to know their story, you realised it was the ghostly look of young people who have seen far too much for their young years. They were willing to have the photo taken, for us to introduce them to people through the work of the council, but we will not be putting them online. It just doesn’t seem proper for us to do so.