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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Christians in Pakistan bear consequences of Islamic country's “blasphemy laws”

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Christians in Pakistan bear consequences of Islamic country's “blasphemy laws”

In the wee hours of June 3, Nazir Masih, a Pakistani Christian who was accused of allegedly burning the pages of the Quran in his residential area in Mujahid colony and subsequently assaulted by hundreds of attackers who were armed with batons, bricks, and stones, perished from his injuries, according to media reports citing his family members and Pakistani police.

Nazir was buried in Mujahid colony, a Christian neighborhood in the Sargodha district of Punjab, as per statements by his family members.

Apart from ransacking Nazir’s home, his assailants supposedly ransacked his shoe factory and set it ablaze.

While Nazir was rushed to a hospital for treatment for various head injuries, doctors were unable to save his life, UCA News cited Adnan Gill, his nephew, as saying.

“Twenty-nine persons have been detained and placed on a judicial remand for interrogation. The identification parade for another 35 is scheduled for today,” Pakistani police officer Hayat told UCA News on June 3.

“Our brother, a businessman, was victimized. We are peaceful people being pushed to their limits,” Nosherwan Iqbal, chairman of the Peace Committee in the Hazara division in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told UCA News on May 26.

Under Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or key  Islamic religious figures can be imprisoned and even sentenced to death.

Following the attack on Nazir, over 200 families, half of them Catholics, escaped the Mujahid colony, as per UCA News reports. Although Catholic Imran Yousaf returned home on May 28 with his family, he said they are still worried.

“The fear has not left us. We still feel it is a risk,” said Yousaf, who was concerned about the safety of his elderly parents.

“They [the mob] were in thousands. At least 70 percent of them were from surrounding villages. Christians in rural areas are now more vulnerable to attacks,” Yousaf elaborated.

Unfortunately, the murdered Nazir was not the only Christian suffering under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

In August last year,a Muslim mob set churches and houses in a Christian settlement in Jaranwala, an industrial district of Faisalabad in Pakistan, on fire , castigating two of the setttlement’s members for desecrating the Quran.

After pages torn from the Quran were purportedly discovered near the Jaranwala Christian community with allegedly blasphemous content written on them, a local Muslim religious leader supposedly exhorted Muslims to demand that those responsible be arrested.

Enraged protesters then targeted the young man’s house, destroying it, before assaulting nearby churches and other homes, based on Crux reports.

Crux also reported Catholic priest Father Gulshan Barkat, a teacher of church history at the National Catholic Institute of Theology in Karachi, as telling the Associated Press (AP) that the allegations of blasphemy were a “false accusation,” and that mosques in the area were responsible for the rampage, they previously had used loudspeakers attached to minarets to encourage Muslims to “attack the churches and Christian community.”

“The emotion of our Muslim brethren flares up very quickly, even at hearsay,” Father Barkat said.

In turn,Pakistani bishops posted on the “Catholics in Pakistan” Facebook page that “on 16th August, an enraged mob vandalized multiple churches in Jaranwala, Faisalabad over blasphemy allegations,” asking followers to “pray for us.”

On August 5, 2023, school teacher Abdul Rauf Barkat was murdered after being slammed for blasphemy during a lecture in Pakistan’s southern province of Balochistan.

In December 2021, an incensed Muslim mob surrounded a sports equipment factory in the Sialkot district, killing a Sri Lankan man and publicly burning his body over allegations of blasphemy. The victim was accused of allegedly desecrating posters bearing the name of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Many people, primarily Christians, have spent years on death row after facing blasphemy allegations they maintain are untrue.

In 2010, Asia Bibi was jailed and sentenced to death after being accused of blasphemy after a dispute with fellow farmhands who refused to drink from the same water jug as a Christian. Subsequently, two government officials, Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered after expressing public support for Bibi and lambasting Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Fortunately for Bibi, however, she was ultimately acquitted in 2018 after spending almost 10 years on death row. Still, Bibi and her family received death threats, prompting them to flee Pakistan for Canada.

In 2009, six Christians were killed and some 60 homes razed to the ground in Pakistan’s district of Gojra in Punjab after accusations of insults to Islam.

The list of violent incidents against Christians in Pakistan can go on and on.

In Muslim-majority Pakistan, the mere notion of blasphemy is an extremely delicate issue  that can provoke widespread violence. When anti-blasphemy violence erupts, local police have been reported to be seen permitting crowds to stage their attacks, usually due to worries that they might be classified as “blasphemers” themselves for not permitting assaults. Nonetheless, human rights groups have asserted that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been abused to settle personal disputes, the BBC reported

According to an excerpt from an executive summary of the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom on Pakistan:

“NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy and that perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases.”

Under Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or key  Islamic religious figures can be imprisoned and even sentenced to death. In August last year, Pakistani lawmakers in both houses of Parliaments passed a law, known as the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, that could jail for life someone accused of insulting any wife, family member or companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Under the previous law, blasphemy violations were only punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine or both. Many people, primarily Christians, have spent years on death row after facing blasphemy allegations they maintain are untrue.

Besides facing potential ramifications from the country’s blasphemy laws, many Pakistan Christians have faced discrimination and persecution in other ways. As per Open Doors International, many Pakistani Christian girls have also been “abducted, abused and forcefully converted to Islam”. To add insult to infamy, Pakistani authorities reportedly assign to Christians lowly jobs like sewer cleaners, pejoratively alluding to Christians as “chura” or “filthy.”

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Angeline Tan | Remnant Columnist, Singapore

Angeline is a Catholic writer who enjoys Catholic history and architecture. Her favorite saints include Saint Joseph, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, Saint Philomena and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of all Saints.