Apostasy from Islam in Pakistan and Human Rights. By Dr. Stephen Gill

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 The article was written about ten years ago when the muscles of the blasphemy laws were not strong. In the world of the human rights of today these muscles are growing stronger and much more fearful.  Both Sunnis and Shias prescribe disinheritance and death for their apostates.  In addition to these punishments, their apostates face penalties, including beating, torture and prison.   If both parent’s apostate from Islam, their children are to be taken away by other members of the family. Even the people who try to save the life of the apostate are punishable by death.  In most cases, the alleged blasphemer is either killed by the mob or by the members of the family.  If through luck   the blasphemer is arrested, he is killed in the jail.  If   blasphemers   are freed by the superior courts because of the false charges, they are not able to enjoy freedom in Pakistan. To make the matter worst, eminent court judges and religious leaders have urged the citizens to kill blasphemers on the spot.

 Islam is divided into two main sects of Sunni and Shia.  Sunnis   form   the majority in Pakistan and also in Saudi Arabia.  They prescribe execution for an apostate from Islam.

 Next to Sunnis there are Shias who are mostly in Iran.   Shias are about 12 percent in Pakistan.  Shias also prescribe execution for their apostates.   One of the Iranian apostates who has received a wide publicity is Hojjatoleslam Hassan Eshkevari, a prominent writer, cleric, director of the Ali Shariati Research Centre, and contributing editor of the now banned monthly newspaper Iran e Farda. He was arrested on his return after attending an academic conference on Iran in Berlin.  He was charged with apostasy and “corruption on earth” that carry’s the penalty of death.  The second such Iranian is Nancy.  In April 2003, Voice of Martyre reported the plight of “Nancy" (not her real name), who had fled to Canada from Iran when threats were made on her life after she converted to Christianity.

 As I have stated above, both Sunnis and Shias prescribe disinheritance and death for their apostates.  Moreover, their apostates lose their possessions   and   face penalties, including beating, torture and prison.   If both parent’s apostate from Islam, their children are to be taken away by other members of the family. Even the people who try to save the life of the apostate are punishable by death.  To avoid the attention of the Western style media, the apostate is often framed in crimes like defilement of the name of the Prophet Mohammed. Fatwa (a religious edict) is also issued by clerics in which case assassins are not persecuted as they should be, because assassins follow    the Sharia laws (Islamic).

 The classic example is of Naimat Ahmar, a 45-year-old Christian who was a school teacher and a progressive award-winning writer. Farooq Ahmad, a twenty-year old student of science, stabbed   Naimat   seventeen times at about 9.30 in the morning in the compound of the District Education Office of Faisalabad, Pakistan.  This savagery was enacted in front of students and teachers in 1992, on the 6th of January.   Naimat Ahmar fell on the floor all covered with blood. Farooq Ahmad straddled him and slit his throat with his knife in front of the staff. No one interfered or uttered a word.

 The police officer who came to arrest him, first hugged him for doing his duty. The killer was visited daily by people who garlanded and gifted him for his courage in   saving the honour of the Prophet. Several clerics and Muslim organizations issued statements in his favour, calling him a hero.  In jail, he received special treatment because the jail authorities adored his passion for the Prophet Mohammed.   "So blatantly prejudiced is the case in Farooq’s favour that Peter John Sahotra, the State Minister for Minorities Affairs, vociferously expressed his dissatisfaction, particularly with the manner in which the police were handling the case."1 Naimat Ahmar was alleged to have defiled the honor of the Prophet Mohammed. 

 The Washington Post reported   that "Naimat Ahmar was brutally murdered on the street in front of his school by a radical Muslim who had never personally heard  Ahmar disparage Mohammed. He had learnt of the accusation from a poster in a village. After murdering Ahmar, he reportedly danced over the body and was greeted  by kisses  from  the police. Muslim religious leaders hailed him as a hero, local lawyers offered  him  free  legal advice, and  villagers streamed to his cell with flowers and cookies."2

 This and several other incidents and  Sharia (Islamic)  laws confirm  that   freedom  to  convert  from  Islam   to another religion does not exist  in  the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that  was carved  out of India  in 1947 on religious grounds.  Pakistan has 95  per cent  Muslims and  about  3  per cent Christians. The penetration of Islam  is  visible  in  every aspect of life, including in  the departments of  the Pakistan government.

 To please   the  majority and also to achieve  the goal for which  Pakistan was created, Zia ul-Haq, a   military dictator, introduced  a set of Islamic laws in 1986,  called the Blasphemy Laws. The article 295-C of the Blasphemy Laws says that “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 (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine.”

 The  law  was  challenged in the Islamic court to prove that the life imprisonment was repugnant  to  the Koran. The Islamic court ruled in October 1990 that the punishment according to Islam  should  only  be  death.  Consequently, the  punishment of imprisonment was removed. On May 1, 1991, death punishment became mandatory for those found guilty under the new statute. A  Muslim  who  changes his religion defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed and therefore that apostate is punishable by death.

 There are  passages in the Blasphemy Laws   which are flexible enough to apply to any situation against any person.  There  is   the climate  of  hatred against minorities  that has been created by the separate electorate system.  Hate is propagated  also  through  the  media, hostile  text  books  in  educational institutions and   through  other  means.  During the election, Muslim candidates  instigate  their voters  against other religions and  give  their  assurance  to do more for Muslims  if elected. Hatred against other religions is preached openly.

 In  this climate of hatred  against non-Muslims,  there are the most vague and most  discriminatory laws of  blasphemy   that  were  introduced  by Zia-ul-Haq.  These nebulous pieces  of  legislation have been misused  and will continue to be misused    to accuse anyone  of defiling the  name  of  Prophet  Mohammed.  For their thorough  critical evaluations, refer to my document The Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan.

 To make the matter worst, eminent high court judges and religious leaders have  urged  the citizens to kill blasphemers  on the spot. One  of them  is  a judge  of  the Lahore High Court,  Justice Nazir  Akhtar.  He said   that  anybody  accused under blasphemy charges  should be  killed on the spot by Muslims as  their  religious obligation. There  was  no need for  legal proceedings for a blasphemer. These remarks of a  judge appeared  in the national print media of  Pakistan, including  the Urdu  publications  Insaf  and Khabrain   of  28 August 2000. Justice Akhtar  said,     Shaheed  law  is  available  to  respond  to  any blasphemy against the prophet.   “We  shall slit every tongue that is guilty of insolence against the Holy  Prophet'.           

As  pointed out  in  the  first  three   paragraphs,   the penalty according to the Shia and also according to the Sunni is death for apostates.  Even according to the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, penalty for defilement  is death, and apostasy is the defilement of the holy name of the Prophet  Mohammed.  This is    the  interpretation  of  the  blasphemy laws by clerics and  courts.  To  point  out  dangers  for an apostate from Islam,   the cases of  Tahir Iqbal and  Raheela  Khanam  have  been selected for this study. 

 Tahir  Iqbal  was  thirty-five year old  when  he died  on the 19th of July in 1992  in  the Kot Lakhpat  jail in  Lahore, Panjab  under suspicious circumstances.  He  was  under  detention  for nineteen months. Tahir  Iqbal,  an air force engineer,  retired  early due to an illness.  He studied Christianity  and consequently due to his convictions  became  Christian in 1988.  He lived at Nishat Colony in Lahore Cantt.  In addition to his pension,  he made money  by repairing radio and watches. He used to give  free tuition to the children of his  locality.

 Mohammad Ali,  the  Imam  (Islamic priest)  of  the local mosque,  filed a complaint  against  him. The complaint  was  that Tahir  Iqbal  was an apostate and that he had defiled a copy of the holy Koran by underlining some verses and  writing on the margin. It was also reported in the media  that  local clerics  issued  a  fatwa  against  Iqbal.  They said  that   he  became  an apostate, an  infidel,  whom  Muslims  have a duty to kill.

 Iqbal’s  defense  lawyer contended  that  the copy of the Koran that  Iqbal possessed was in English whereas according to legal precedent only Arabic version of the Koran can be considered as holy.          As  per  the Amnesty International report of July 1994 :

 From December 1990 to May 1991, no  lawyer  was willing to defend  Tahir  Iqbal. Therefore,  the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan provided  him legal assistance. An  application  for bail was turned down in July 1991 by  the Sessions Court Judge,  stating that “since conversion from Islam into Christianity is itself a cognizable offence involving  serious  implications,   I do  not  consider the petitioner  entitled  to the concession of bail.”  A  further  bail application to the Lahore High Court, which referred to Tahir Iqbal’ s  physical condition,  and  the fact  that  apostasy is not  listed  as  a  criminal offence in the Pakistan Penal Code, was turned down with the same argument.                                                                                                               

During hearings, Muslim clerics  shouted  slogans  and  threatened  the  defense lawyer. The  presiding  judge  reprimanded  them for interfering in the court proceedings but was  then himself threatened and finally transferred to another court. The Imam (Islamic priest)  of  the Badshahi mosque in Lahore publicly declared that  an apostate  like Tahir Iqbal should be killed.

 During  his trial, Tahir Iqbal  was  held  in  a  cell  without  water, electricity  and  toilet  facilities. After protests by his lawyer and the Christian community, he was transferred back to a regular cell, but during the hot months of April and May 1992, he was again without water or electricity.

 Due  to  threats from  his warden, Tahir Iqbal feared that he would be murdered  in jail. He expressed  this apprehension  to  his lawyer during his last court  hearing  on  the 13th of July 1992,  and also wrote to the Prime Minister and other authorities about his fears but  no measures were taken to ensure his safety.  Tahir  Iqbal   died   on 19 July 1992. His body was found  on  the 20th of  July  by  jail  wardens. Members of the Christian minority voiced concern that Tahir Iqbal may have been poisoned. At the last court hearing, Tahir Iqbal had been in good health.

 On the 20th  of  July 1992, the  magistrate  who  received  the  notification  of Tahir Iqbal’s  death, ordered  a  postmortem  and held a preliminary inquiry at  Kot Lakhpat jail. Wardens were questioned, as was the jail medical officer, who said that Tahir Iqbal  had  been  brought  to  him with a  high  temperature. He was  vomiting  blood. Four fellow prisoners  also  confirmed to Tahir Iqbal’s  lawyer  that  he had started vomiting blood. The magistrate reportedly ordered  a  police  inspector  to  take the body for the postmortem.

 In a  nutshell,  the  postmortem was never done on his body. His dead body was handed  to his stepmother who was a Muslim and was buried according to the Islamic rites. The case against Tahir Iqbal was registered on the 7th of December of 1990 on the application of Peerzada Ali Ahmad Chishti.  Tahir Iqbal  was baptized in the United Pentecostal Church, Lahore,  by Rev. Nazir Lal. 

  The second  case  that  points  out the  dangers for an apostate is  about   Raheela  Khanam. She was shot dead  by  her own elder brother on July 16, 1997. The killer accepted this act saying  he  performed  his  religious duty.  This  case of apostasy has caused tragedy in the lives of several persons.  The apostate, Raheela  Khanam, was killed by the hands that rocked her cradle.  Not only they killed their own daughter, they also got hold of her girl friend SK (not her real name) who introduced  her  to  Christianity. She  was   very badly  sexually abused  while in police custody. She has almost vegetated now and she is still in hiding.  They also tortured the mother, father and older sister of SK, tying  them all  with iron chains to a tree.   They tortured Pastor Arthur because he told  the twenty-two year old  Muslim  girl about Christianity when she approached him.   The police broke his ribs and tortured also his son. They had to escape from Pakistan.  The fundamentalists  also  possessed  forcibly their church property and  tortured  their  relatives. For the  tragedies that  this apostasy have caused , refer to my   document titled Agonizing Escape of a Pastor from Pakistan.

 The life of an apostate from Islam  is beset with life-threatening  perils  in Pakistan.  Even those who are  born  into  Christian families   face persecution at every step.  To escape some  of  those persecutions,  they  adopt  Muslim  names and manners.  Still, they cannot be entirely out of  the  clutches of persecutions.   Due to the Blasphemy Laws  and the climate of hatred, Christians in Pakistan  live under the Martial Law of religion.  Obviously, minorities face the state-sponsored  terrorism  in  Pakistan. Some of their sufferings have been  sketched  in my  document, titled Saga of Persecution of Christians in Pakistan.

 According to the constitution of Pakistan, conversion  from  Islam  to any other religion is not illegal. However, conversion from Islam is not possible because it   is  an offence that carries the death penalty according  to  the   Sharia  (Islamic)  laws.  The  law  enforcement  agencies  and  administration can offer no security because the  atmosphere is  hostile  for apostates  from  Islam. Even just  a  rumour  would  put  the life also  of a  priest  in danger.  On the other hand, the atmosphere is encouraging for the followers of  other religions  to accept  Islam.  Human Rights Monitor 2001 reports one case:

 Near Okara, Panjab, a village called  Chak 6/4-l, has a Christian high school and a college. Majority of the population in this village is  Christian. The school has  Muslim students and teachers. In February 2000, a  Muslim  student came to a priest here to become Christian.  The  priest told her  that she was not an adult.  Moreover, she  needed  more  understanding of  Christianity. So  he  refused  to  baptize  her.  Islamic  clerics   of  the surrounding  villages  used  loudspeakers  on  their  mosques  to  instigate   them  to  beat   the priest for converting Muslims,  destroy the church,  and  punish  the Christians of  that village.  When  those Christians came to know it, they  took steps to defend themselves. Meanwhile, the police also stepped in and somehow there was reconciliation.3  There are several such cases. A considerable  number of  Christians are becoming Muslims because of the marriage of convenience for them.  These conversions are often reported  in the media   to boost the pride of Muslims.  But   conversion of a  Muslim into Christianity is an intolerable offence in Pakistan.

 The Bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan,  John Joseph,   describes a  Muslim  convert  he  met  in  Rome in February of 1996. He was invited to attend  the baptismal ceremony of  this convert  who  was being  baptized  by  a  German bishop. The convert  told Bishop John Joseph  that due to  fear no priest was ready to baptize him in Pakistan. He came to Germany and even here no Pakistani Christian dared  to introduce him to a priest. Then he took courage and went to a priest himself. He  had  gathered  his  knowledge about Christianity long  before in Pakistan. He studied Christianity further   in Germany and Rome. In Pakistan, his uncle  was a member of the parliament and one of  his  brothers  was a bank manager.  In Pakistan, he himself was a bank manager.  Before  becoming Christian, he  wrote a letter to his uncle and brother in Pakistan about his decision to become Christian.   He never received a  reply.  On  May 6  in 1998, Bishop John Joseph  committed suicide to protest against  the blasphemy laws and the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.4

 Life  becomes more difficult   if  the alleged Christian blasphemer  has  property or  a successful business. Ayub Masih  languished in jail for years because of the land grabbers. After years, it was proved in the supreme court that a false case of blasphemy was designed  against him to grab his property. There  is  a  long  list  of  similar  cases of land grabbing of Christians under false accusations  of defiling the name of Prophet Mohammed.

Nearly all those Christians  who had been  implicated  in   blasphemy   were  innocent.  All lost their respect, and properties  before their arrests.  Death  punishment  is  awarded by courts  if  the matter is able to reach there. In most cases, the alleged  blasphemer  is either killed by the mob or by  members  of  the family.  If through luck   the blasphemer  is arrested,  he  is  killed  in  the jail.  If   blasphemers   are freed  by the superior courts because of the false charges, they  are  not  able  to enjoy  freedom  in  Pakistan. So far, nearly all the alleged blasphemers  have  sought  asylum   abroad  to  live a  life of freedom that was not possible in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

 The case of Mr. Naveed  Mughal, an apostate from Islam,  is another tragic episode of persecution that  is being  played on the stage of religion in 2004.    Even a   basic  study of  Pakistan   will convince any individual   that  Christians  in Pakistan face  the state-sponsored persecution.  The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan confirms this  when  it  says  “the blasphemy  laws  encourage citizens  to  take murderous actions like Farooq Ahmed’s,”5    who  savagely  stabbed  Naimat Ahmar with a knife he picked up from the butcher’s shop of his father. The  life  of  the  convert  and  even the  brothers, sisters and parents of the convert  are  not free from the danger of death. According to the letters  and  the media report, the Mughals  have received  threats  from various sources.  There is  a  fatwa (a religious edict)  against   Mr. Naveed  Mughal  that endangers  his  life  further  in Pakistan.  It is much easier to kill  apostates  from  Islam, particularly  after  a  fatwa,  because killers  in such cases are treated as heroes.  As it has been reported by the press,  the  house of  the Mughals in  Pakistan   has  been  targeted  by  the fundamentalists.  They have been  accused  of   being  puppets in the hands of the United States of America.   The  presence of  Mr. Naveed Mughal  in  Pakistan  will   encourage  fundamentalists  to  earn more points  in  their  eligibility  to enter   paradise  by  killing an infidel, and Christians and Jews are infidels to  them.

 The Sharia laws  (Islamic)  concerning  apostates violate   Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It   says that  everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  The Universal Declarations  clearly states that “this right includes freedom  to  change  his  religion or belief.”  Obviously,   Mr. Naveed  Mughal   will not be able to  enjoy  this  right  in Pakistan,  because apostasy is a spiritual treason in  Islam,   for which the  penalty  is death. To go after a Christian, someone   from a   3 per cent   minority group in Pakistan, Muslims use also the weapon of the blasphemy laws that deny the basic human rights to the citizens of the same country.

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 WORK CITED

1 SECTION 295-C (Pakistan’s Penal Code) by Jacob Dildar and Aftab Alexander Mughal, Aman o Insaf, Bishop House, Faisalabad, Pakistan, Feb. 1995, page 25

 2 Washington Post, 21st of October 1993

 3 Human Rights Monitor 2001. National Commision for Justice and Peace, E/64-A, Street 8, Officers Colony, Walton Road, Lahore, Pakistan, May 2001, p. 20

 4A Peaceful Struggle by Bishop John Joseph, Bishop’s House, Faisalabad, May 1999, p. 104-5

 5 Persecuted Minorities and Writers in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch (New York), Sept. 19, 1993, vol. 5 Number 13.

 NOTE: Self-exiled Stephen Gill, a multiple- award winning Indo/Canadian poet, fiction writer and essayist, has authored more than thirty books, including novels, literary criticism, and collections of poems. The focus of his writing is love and peace, based on his ideology of live and let live.  Stephen Gill was born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan, and grew in India. The “silent wrenching pains” of his early life has kept Stephen Gill as a prisoner of fear even when he came abroad.

SITE: stephengillcriticism.info; 

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