The Islamic Republic of Pakistan appears to be vying with a few other nations (also Islamic) for the title of most egregious human rights violator in the world. Much of the evil perpetrated is the fault of the country’s blasphemy laws, part of Pakistan’s Penal Code, that have victimized both Christians and Muslims. The long, drawn-out persecution and oppression of Pakistani Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi, sentenced to die under those egregious laws is just business as usual for Pakistan. But the November 4, 2014 torture and burning to death of a young Christian couple near Lahore has been called “the worst religiously-motivated hate crime in Pakistan’s history.”
That is saying something, in a nation where Christians are commonly treated like second-class citizens – if not animals, where mobs of extremists have attacked Christian villages forcing the residents to flee or die, and where the small minority of courageous Muslims who stand up for Christians also become victims of the enraged. But it is hard to imagine anything more horrific than the murder of Sajjad Masih and his pregnant wife, Shama Bibi, the parents of four children. Accused of “desecrating the Koran,” the couple was held in a room next to the brick kiln where they were bonded laborers while the local mosques worked up the usual suspects, some accounts say 2,000, some say as many as 4,000. The Muslim mob dragged the couple outside, beat them, broke their legs so they could not get away, and threw them – still alive – into the kiln’s furnace.
Disturbingly, the same, or a similar fate, could await Asia Bibi, if Pakistan’s Supreme Court should overturn her death sentence. Her only hope would be to immediately flee the country with her family. Not sure what hope there would be for any Supreme Court justices who might pardon her. The High Court in Lahore did not venture into justice, most probably because they knew the repercussions they would face from Muslim “mobs.” Along with other religious freedom activists and human rights organizations we are outraged over the October 16, 2014 decision to uphold the death penalty against Bibi, who has been on death row for four years on the blasphemy charge. Bibi is the only woman this century to have been condemned to death for blasphemy. She also has a price on her head, offered by a radical Muslim cleric who is encouraging Pakistan’s Taliban to “finish her.”
What was the terrible crime for which Asia Bibi was arrested in June 2009? While picking fruit in a field, she stopped to get a drink of water from a nearby well. She offered a drink to another woman, but one of the Muslim women workers screamed that she was “contaminating” water that belonged only to Muslims. The situation escalated. Bibi was accused of making derogatory statements against Islam’s prophet Mohammed and dragged before the village imam. She was attacked and brutally beaten by a mob of outraged Muslims. Then she was thrown into prison where she has suffered from abuse, including more beatings by other prisoners as well as by guards. She now faces hanging unless charges against her are overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Meanwhile, her husband, Ashiq Masih, and their children are in hiding.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws prescribe the death penalty for both desecration of the Qur’an (Section 295-B) – hence the justification for the vile crime perpetrated against Christian couple Sajjad and Shama (first names, to distinguish between the two women named “Bibi”) – and blasphemy against Islam’s prophet Mohammed (Section 295-C). The law is inspired by Sharia law and has been entrenched in Pakistan for years. According to the very brave Pakistani activists campaigning to end the abuse of the blasphemy laws, “the draconian Blasphemy Law is used for the miscarriage of justice; it is exploited ruthlessly by fanatics to settle scores with rivals and by religio-political parties to gain political leverage over administrative apparatuses.”
Muslim radicals have often threatened, attacked, and even killed blasphemy suspects and their family members, although nothing like what was done to Sajjad and Shama on the trumped-up charge of burning Koranic pages. In almost every case, suspects who have been acquitted have had to flee the country with their families. Islamists have also threatened and attacked lawyers, judges and police for defending or acquitting the suspects. As hinted at earlier, activists believe that the Lahore High Court judges may have rejected Bibi’s appeal out of fear for their own lives. Many of the Islamists demanding angrily Bibi’s execution were present in the courtroom. Such extremists have even killed politicians that called for the reform of the blasphemy laws.
Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, opposed the blasphemy laws and defended Asia Bibi. He was murdered on January 4, 2011, shot 27 times by his own body guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, for his outspoken defense of Bibi and condemnation of the misuse of the blasphemy laws. Qadri was celebrated as a “hero” by the Pakistan Taliban and other Islamists. In contrast, when Asia Bibi heard of Taseer’s death, she “wept inconsolably” and a prison source reported that she repeated, “That man came here and he sacrificed his life for me.”
Then on March 2, 2011, our own friend, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was also killed for speaking out against the law and for Bibi. The cowardly gunmen (later the Taliban claimed credit for the murder) ambushed him just outside his mother’s home in Islamabad and riddled his car with bullets. In a video recorded just a few months before his assassination and released to the media after he was murdered, Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs said, “When I am leading these campaigns against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed, marginalized Christians and other minorities these Taliban threaten me. … I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”
In a soon-to-be-released book by one of us, (Darara Gubo) entitled Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World: How Religious Fundamentalism is Challenging Fundamental Human Rights (Lexington Books, December 16, 2014), the danger of the blasphemy laws to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to life of those accused of violation like Asia Bibi and so many others is described in detail. Pakistan and other member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have made efforts to introduce internationally binding agreements to protect Islam and Mohammed from blasphemy. Such agreements would violate universal human rights and would make it even more of a nightmare for anyone charged with blasphemy.
The bid for an international protocol against defamation of religions has faced opposition from Western countries pressured particularly by human rights and religious freedom organizations as well as other activists. But although the OIC has not been able to get this sort of agreement enacted, it has not abandoned its push to protect Islam. In 2011, the United States actually joined Turkey in what was called the “Istanbul Process” to create HRC Resolution 16/18 to “combat intolerance, discrimination and incitement to hatred and/or violence on the basis of religion or belief.” Many believe that by doing this the United States has actually legitimized “the longstanding Islamic campaign at the UN to ban ‘defamation of religion,’ only with different terminology.”
And truly, as the cases of Asia Bibi, Sajjad and Shama, and other Christians and Muslims charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws prove, HRC Resolution 16/18 – if it were to become internationally binding – would only aid in the aggressive and abusive use of the blasphemy laws. Actions as innocuous as Asia Bibi’s taking a drink of water from a well that Muslims think is only for them, or of Shama allegedly burning pages of the Koran, could be considered “incitement” to violence.
In the wake of the horrific death of Sajjad Masih and Shama Bibi, we wonder what will become of Asia Bibi as she awaits her last appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court. Both secular and religious human rights groups have launched petitions and letters on her behalf to bring justice and freedom to this Christian victim of religious persecution. Amnesty International, for example, has over 18,000 signatures so far on a petition to Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Christian organization the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has over 215,000 signatures on their petition to the Pakistani government. We can only hope and pray that Asia Bibi will be freed, and that she and husband, Ashiq Masih, and their daughters will be protected and provided with a place of safety where they can live in peace and freedom.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’sReligious Liberty Program and the Church Alliance for a New Sudan in Washington, DC, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007). Find her at email@example.com.
Dr. Darara Gubo leads Their Blood Cries Out, a Birmingham, AL based Christian group that works for the persecuted church, and is the author of Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World: How Religious Fundamentalism Is Challenging Fundamental Human Rights (Lexington Books, December 16, 2014). Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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