The future looks bleak for Christians and other representatives of religious minorities in Pakistan. In fact, the rapid increase in registrations of blasphemy cases against Christians in Pakistan should ring alarm bells to anyone who believes that religious freedom and justice should be available to everyone regardless of creed and religion.
The blasphemy law and its consequences
The blasphemy law imposes harsh punishments including heavy fines, life imprisonment and even a mandatory death penalty to those who have been accused of desecrating the Holy Quran, defiling the name of or making derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad or his companions.
Originally, the blasphemy law had a penalty of 2 years imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Rupees. However, in 1985 this law it was amended by the late president of Pakistan General Zia-Ul-Haq who began the process of Islamising the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s laws and who made Shariah the supreme law of the country. To accomplish his purpose, Zia-Ul-Haq set up Majlis-e-Shoora, formed the council for Islamic ideology and constituted Shariah courts. In 1990 life imprisonment and the mandatory death penalty of those accused under the blasphemy law was introduced by the Shariah court.
Although, since 1985 none of the people accused under the blasphemy law have been officially executed, several innocent victims, yet to be proven guilty, have been murdered by zealous Muslims - even suspects in the custody of police or in jails are not safe.
Only last year, Bashir Masih, a Christian wrongly accused of blasphemy was murdered in Bahawalpur jail. In 2005, another innocent victim, Samuel Masih was brutally killed by the policeman who was on duty guarding him.
In present day Pakistan, many voiceless victims of the blasphemy law are languishing in jails and those who are acquitted and proven innocent are living in perpetual fear or flee the country, because often even a suspectÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s acquittal by the court of law does not pacify the outraged Muslim fanatics.
When justice can not prevail
It is impossible to get a fair trial for the accused under the blasphemy law because of the pressure on the judges hearing such cases. The court rooms are always full of fundamentalists or members of militant groups. Courts are guarded by the Elliot force (commando forces) as I, have seen personally in the case of Murshid Masih and it is was enough for anybody to understand the sensitivity of the issue.
The lives of Christian lawyers who have a passion for justice and of CLAASÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ representatives who stand up to defend the accused are equally under threat at the time of hearing.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan today the blasphemy law is exceptionally open to the abuse by extremists who has are using it as a powerful tool for igniting religious hatred and feeding intolerance. What makes the matters even worse is that those who have taken this law in their hands have never been questioned or prosecuted and their actions serve to encourage others to do the same.
Most blasphemy cases are registered on the evidence of one accuser who has the backing of militant groups with shared prejudice against Christians. In many cases, there are no other eyewitnesses and not only the accused but the whole Christian community in that village or street, their church and their homes come under attack.
This was the case at (insert name of the place), where where five Christians including an 11 year old child were charged under blasphemy law just before Easter. The whole colony was attacked and Rattan Masih, an innocent victim was severely injured and admitted to the hospital.
The blasphemy law is being abused to strip Christians of their property and possessions
In the most farcical of abuses of the blasphemy law, Mr Walter Fazal Khan, an 84 year old was accused by his Muslim driver for allegedly burning the Holy Quran.
While Mr Khan is languishing in jail without any proof or evidence that he ever committed the crime his house has been possessed by Islamic fundamentalists wanting to start Madressah in Mr KhanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s property and his elderly wife Mrs Glades Khan has been forcibly converted to Islam.
The fact of the matter is that registering the case against Mr. Khan and many others without investigation contradicts the procedural change announced by the Pakistani government in October 2004. Under the amended law, the police is required to investigate allegations before charging and arresting anyone. So why is the police not doing their job properly?
The main reason is that, all cases against Christians to date have been born out to settle the personal scores and grab the properties. Unfortunately, these cases have added to discrimination, hostility and religious hate prevail in the society against Christians, lead to attacks on the churches and Christian properties.
Those of us who live in the Western countries find it very difficult to imagine the suffering, the pain, the hurt and upheavals that hundreds of poor and defenceless Christians and representatives of other religious minorities are going through in Pakistan.
In recent years religious intolerance and bigotry has sped up in Pakistan and the doors of dialogue and debate are being closed. Religious fundamentalism is growing beyond all proportions. Muslim clerics are demanding the complete imposition of Islamic Shariah in Pakistan, making it applicable also to the non-Muslim citizens.
Responding to the challenges of growing persecution
A while ago, the National Assembly of Pakistan rejected much needed amendments to the blasphemy law. Yet, before Christians and representatives of other religious minorities had time to react to such rejections another piece of bad news has already surfaced. The alliance of religious political parties, Majlis e Muthida Amal, has issued a new anti-Christian private bill on Ã¢â‚¬Å“ApostasyÃ¢â‚¬Â for the consideration of the National Assembly. If this new bill is passed, there will be more negative consequences for Christians and others who want to live and worship in freedom in an enlightened and moderate Pakistan.
Can this situation be reversed? Can Christians and Muslims co-exist peacefully in a country like Pakistan? I believe that the answer to these questions can be a re-sounding yes. I am not alone in striving to raise awareness about the persecution of Pakistani Christians and in challenging foreign governments and international organisations to put pressure of the government of Pakistan to stop persecution and curb the growth of anti-Christian legislations.
CLAAS UK continues to play a strategic role in this process and at the moment we are in the process of launching a three year campaign to repeal the blasphemy law and bring an end to the injustice and suffering it causes.
The main aims of this campaign are:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ To raise awareness about the injustices and dire consequences of the use of blasphemy law among the international community, working in partnership with organisations, churches and individuals.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ To lobby world leaders, governments and international organisations, urging them to encourage the government of Pakistan to amend or abolish the blasphemy law.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ To provide international leadership for a co-ordinated and concerted campaign to abolish the blasphemy law, working in partnership with Christian organisations in the UK, Europe and around the world.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ To develop and sustain direct communication with the government of Pakistan, to highlight the problems caused by the blasphemy law and to urge repeal or significant amendment.