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.
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.