COMMENTARY
 
For Whom the Bell Tolls: Protecting Pakistan's Christian Minority
Weekly Pulse
August 7-13, 2009
You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State ... We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State ... Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

--Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, August 11, 1947

This was the vision our great leader had for Pakistan, as he spoke to its first Constituent Assembly three days before its creation. Sixty-two years down the lane, what we have made of this country is aptly visible in the mountains of Waziristan, the valley of Swat, the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar and towns as small as Gojra in central Punjab—where forces guided by the spirit of violent jihad are trampling the basic rights of people, taking innocent lives, victimizing minority communities, and terrorizing the rest.

Each year, three days before we celebrate our National Day, August 11 is observed as Pakistan’s Minority Day, to remind ourselves about the founding father’s secular vision for the country as stated in the historic speech of August 11, 1947. This year, the country’s Christian community has decided to observe this occasion as a Black Day. And, rightly so!

Christians, like majority Muslims and any other minority, have contributed equally to Pakistan’s creation and its national evolution. Yet, for the past three decades, they have been at the forefront of a violent racial victimization process, which is being fuelled by the current wave of terrorism in the name of jihad.

Gojra Incident

We should all hang our heads in shame, for letting the barbarians among us burn to death seven innocent Christian souls, including four women and a child, in broad daylight in Gojra on August 1. The most troubling aspect of this tragic act is that the alleged perpetrators of the act were not a handful of fundamentalist Muslim miscreants, as it is generally the case; rather, it was a mob consisting of over a thousand or even more people. The inciters might be fewer in number, but the real question is, how could they incite such a large crowd, or persuade a huge chunk of the town’s majority Muslim population to ransack an entire Christian colony?

Why is it that our rulers are so found of covering up a crisis only after it occurs, rather than pre-empting it before? Rana Sanaullah, the Punjab Law Minister, is on record having said that, two months before the Gojra tragedy, the provincial government had received an intelligence report suggesting that militants were switching from suicide bombings to inciting sectarian strife in the province. If that were the case, then why did the otherwise proactive Chief Minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, not direct his provincial administration to be vigilant and act beforehand to prevent any instance whereby a minority is the target of a pre-meditated terrorist act by members of fundamentalist-terrorist groups in the country? The tragic incident of unimaginable mob violence in Gojra is, therefore, a direct consequence of the provincial government’s negligence—so much so that both the police and the civil administration acted as by-standers when it occurred.

The issue this time was the same, as many times before: someone from amongst a religiously fundamentalist population, intending to settle personal score with the Christian community of the town—alleged desecration of the holy Quran by a member of this community. Demonstrations followed in the town, with fundamentalist clerics inciting the demonstrators. To use Mr. Sanaullah’s words, “masked men” from the banned Sipah-e-Sehaba-Pakistan (SSP) and its al-Qaeda-affiliated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also joined in—and hell broke loose then. Fuelled by violent jihadi passions, hundreds laid a siege of the Christian neighbourhood, started killing its residents and burning their homes. Seven innocent people were killed, dozens of them were injured and at least 50 houses were destroyed. The violent act took place with impunity for hours, allegedly under the watchful eyes of the top police and civil officers of the district.

The consequence of the terrorist act have been grave: If Pakistan’s image in the world had not already been damaged enough due to similar tragic episodes of violent racism against its minorities, particularly Christians, as well as the continuingly worsening security quagmire caused by jihadi terrorism, it has further deteriorated due to Gojra incident. Human rights groups at home and abroad have condemned it, so has the federal and provincial government—even though the latter’s condemnation lacks credibility for their failure to pre-empt the tragic incident despite the availability of intelligence weeks before its occurrence.

Pope’s Message

On August 3, Pope Benedict XVI also condemned the “senseless attack” on the Christian community in Pakistan, while expressing “deep sorrow” over the deaths of eight people. However, the Pope is gracious enough to urge the country’s Christian community “not to be deterred in their efforts to help build a society which, with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members.”

Police have so far arrested about 200 people in connection with the riots. FIRs have been registered against both the DPO and DCO, and hundreds of other alleged members of the mob who went on a burning and killing spree have also been charged—but only after Christian protestors put the coffins of the killed on the rail-track for seven hours on August 1 in their bid to seek justice. Both the federal and provincial governments have announced compensation packages for those killed and whose homes have been destroyed. Besides condemning the incident, government leaders are busy establishing the links of the culprits with al-Qaeda or jihadi organizations displaced by security operation in Swat. Hardly anyone from the government or from amongst the politicians has come forward to raise the single most important issue: that of the existence of the Blasphemy Laws in the Constitution, which provide the pretext for such forces to victimize minority groups.

As long as these laws are part of the Constitution, the problem of violence against Christians in Pakistan will not go away. The very Constitution that should have reflected the secular spirit of our Quaid is laced with notorious provisions such as the Blasphemy Laws, which are used by the terrorist, fundamentalist deviants of Islam, the most peaceful revealed faith ever, to settle their scores with the country’s minorities, particularly Christians. In the case of Gojra as well, it was reportedly a property dispute—the building of a Muslim graveyard on a Christian land—that led to the deplorable incident.

Blasphemy Laws

The Blasphemy Laws were inserted into the 1973 Constitution by the fundamentalist regime of General Ziaul Haq. Despite the passage of over two decades after the end of that regime, these laws are still part of this Constitution. Even the self-proclaimed progressive government of former President-General Pervez Musharraf could not repeal them, as its religio-political allies sabotaged every move in this regard in the parliament.

The jihadi organizations are hell bent upon killing anyone, be it a Christian or a Muslim, who does not subscribe to their narrow view of religion or the world we live in. They target fellow Muslims, our society and the state—in the name of their own brand of Shariah, which they want every other Muslim to support. In the case of minorities, they have an in-built institutional support mechanism: the very existence of Blasphemy Laws in the amended form of 1973 Constitution, which subjugate Christians and also foster injustice and violence.

Of particular relevance here are two Blasphemy Laws, including 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which have been used frequently to victimize members of the country’s Christian community in the past three decades. Section 295-B states, “Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Koran or an extract there-from or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life. Section 295-C states, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.”

There are other constitutional provisions, such as Section 295 the PPC, which was part of the original version of 1973 Constitution and can be effective in preventing instances of blasphemy, whether it pertains to Islam or faiths practiced by minorities in Pakistan. It states, “Whoever, destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Serial Pattern

The incident in Gojra was not the first when these laws were exploited by violent jihadis in target-killing of Christians and the burning of their abodes. It was the third attack on Pakistani Christians in the past month. According to Minority Rights Group International, a UK-based NGO, Pakistan had the world's highest increase of threats against minorities last year and was ranked the seventh most dangerous country for minorities overall. Christians make up over 3 percent of the population of 175 million, are generally poorer and less educated than the Muslim majority and face bias in seeking employment.

Before Gojra, there have been many cases, one in Alipur Chatta in Gujranwala district and another one at Toba Tek Singh, when in reaction to the alleged desecration of the Quran or the alleged blasphemy of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), violent Muslim mobs delivered “justice” to Christian victims before the law could take its course. The Gojra incident was followed by another one involving alleged blasphemy of Quranic verses in a locality of Sheikhupura, even though the victim in the case was a Muslim.

Some years ago, Niamat Ahmer, Tahir Iqbal and Manzoor Masih were likewise killed even before the courts could hear the cases registered against them. The lawyers who appear in court on behalf of accused persons in blasphemy cases are often the targets of intimidation and threats. Some years ago, the retired Judge of the Lahore High Court, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who set aside the death sentence passed by the Session Courts in the case of Salamat Masih, and Rehmat Masih was shot and killed by an Islamic extremist. His killer, like that of Manzoor Masih, has not been brought to justice. In May 1998, Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph of the Diocese of Faisalabad took his life to protest against the Blasphemy Laws.

In the climate of intolerance which prevails and in view of threats and intimidation and the pressures brought on the judiciary, it has become nearly impossible to obtain a fair hearing in Pakistan for those charged under the Blasphemy Laws. In these circumstances, the lower judiciary has often been constrained to accuse and convict persons without proper study of the evidence placed before it. In one case some years ago, a Sessions Judge convicted Gul Masih, who was charged under the Blasphemy Laws, and imposed the death sentence on him on the grounds "that the complainant had an outlook of a good Muslim, that he was a college student and that he had a beard". Likewise, no one knows the whereabouts of Talib Massih, who was tried under Section 295-C and was given death sentence.

Al-Qaeda Link

Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (SSP) and its al-Qaeda-linked group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have over the year targeted Shias in Karachi, Jhang, Dera Ismail Khan and places as far away as Parachinar. Back in the 90s, members of these organizations would selectively target the Shia population of Karachi, killing medical doctors, engineers and lawyers—and all those who had the potential to excel in this country as a minority.

Now they, with allies from al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spare no opportunity in the mass murder of the Shia population, for instance, in the city of Dera Ismael Khan through serial suicide bombings. In a pattern that has become quite familiar now, the first suicide attack kills a few and injures others. It is the second and the third which proves more lethal, as the injured taken to the hospital are targeted en masse and those offering prayers before the burial of the earlier killed become victim of the follow-up suicide attacks.

We may have overlooked sectarian violence when it began in the 80s, and was nurtured throughout the 90s. But we simply cannot afford to ignore it now that the groups orchestrating it have effectively linked up with transnational terrorist groups like TTP and the terrorist network of al-Qaeda from which they seek their heinous terrorist inspiration. The organization behind the September 2008 Marriott attack in Islamabad was none else than Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

These jihadi organizations will follow the al-Qaeda agenda for Pakistan: sabotaging every move that its leadership makes towards peace with India and cooperation with Afghanistan; as well as preventing its state and society to live in peace and harmony, to have political stability, enjoy the fruits of economic growth and earn international goodwill for all such national distinctions.

Final Words

To cut the long story short, what we need to do simply is this: go after these violent jihadi groups, both as a state and as a society, in the manner that these murderous outfits and their activists and leaders deserve. And, particularly in the matter of preserving the rights of our non-Muslim minorities like Christians, we need to repeal Sections 295-B and C of the infamous Blasphemy Laws, and amend the rest in a way that no one can misuse them for personal revenge or as part of a violent, fundamentalist agenda. Let’s not make the constitutional provisions regarding issues of blasphemy only Islam or Muslim-specific. If the Quaid’s speech cited at the start tells us anything, it is that Pakistan was created so that Muslims will eventually cease to be Muslims and Christians will cease to be Christians not religiously but politically. Given that, even terming Christians a minority is should be unfair.

We, as a nation and guided by the vision of our founding father, each other with great care. We must remember that the world as a whole, where the majority population is Christian, may not shed a tear when instances of Muslim-on-Muslim violence occur in the Muslim world, including terrorism-ridden countries like ours. But it will not tolerate if we as a nation or those governing us continue to be complacent about or ignorant of the crimes against Christianity taking place in this country.

If we are really interested in improving or restoring our national image in the rest of the world, then we need to make sure that what happened in Gojra won’t happen again, and that everyone in this country will be free to live according to his or her religious beliefs, and to make sure, as our Quaid envisioned 62 years ago, that religion has nothing to do with the business of the state. Do our politicians have the guts to do so?

Access column at weeklypulse.org