On 4 November 2014, a young Christian couple was publically set on fire in Punjab, Pakistan. It was alleged by a mob of 1200 persons that the couple had desecrated verses from the Quran. According to source, the mob had apparently offered a waiving of severe retribution if the couple converted to Islam, but when the couple refused, locked them in a brick kiln, and set on fire.
Harassment and instances of violence against Pakistan’s minority Christian community has increased suddenly in the past few years. Last year, anti-Christian riots erupted in Gojra and Lahore, causing 170 families to flee their homes.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2013, 501 people were victimised on blasphemy charges that entailed incidents categorised under “attacks on places of worship, stating derogatory remarks, disgracing in any form, unclear happenings and other cases.” While most outbreaks are instigated out of socio-economic reasons, they are constantly also backed by religious dogmas and false accusations of blasphemy. In the recent years, this trend has become increasingly pronounced. Assassinations of high-profile political leaders, attacks on the impoverished populations, and expulsions of minority students for misspelling/ misquoting the Quran point towards the intensification of radicalism and resultant attitudes among hard-line Islamists in Pakistan.
Why are Christians being targeted in Pakistan? Why is the Pakistani State reluctant to re-evaluate or repeal the biased blasphemy laws?
Christians are the second-largest religious minority in Pakistan after the Hindus, representing 1.8 per cent of the country's total population. A large number of Christians reside in south Karachi, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While a section resides in the poorest sectors of Pakistan involved menial jobs, there is a significant section that is flourishing in the corporate sector, in Karachi. In Pakistan, any sense of economic progression or identity-assertion by a minority group results in a sense of paranoia among the radicals in the majority groups. Consequently, both sides, irrespective of their economic contribution to the country are vulnerable to the wrath of Islamist extremism in Pakistan.
Additionally, there has been a gradual change shift in the Christian community vis-à-vis their socio-economic and political demands. Since 1992, the Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC) has been demanding a separate Christian province in Punjab. Furthermore, Christians have been extremely vocal in expressing equal rights, demanding state benefits, exhibiting intolerance towards the blasphemy laws and refuting the majoritarian attitude towards the minority groups. Asserting for greater autonomy and representation in society is largely dismissed in Pakistan. Minority communities that remain submissive and camouflage within the rest of the society are accepted by the radicals. Those who resist are assaulted.
For instance, the Pakistani Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on the grounds of supporting the cause of Pakistani Christians, condemning the 2009 Gojra riots and demanding for justice.
Role of Blasphemy Laws
Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code was introduced during the 1980s. It reinstated the position of religious zealots to act according to their whims and fancies. Pakistan has some of the strictest anti-blasphemy laws in the world, and they prescribe punitive punishment to those who ‘deliberately intend to wound the religious sentiments of others in their sight, hearing, and presence through imprisonment, fine or both’.
The law has been been heavily criticised for extending protection towards the embodiments of the Islamic faith alone while excluding that of other religious faiths. While the law is applicable to all, in a multi-faith society such as Pakistan, it is seen as highly discriminatory, as even the slightest rumours about instances of defaming the Prophet and/or the Quran continues to spark hysteria amongst the radicalised Muslims.
Stagnant Status Quo
The state has condemned violent attacks against the Christian community, but its tight-lipped stance on the issue of amendment or repealing of the biased laws questions the government’s credibility and intents on the issue. Given the identity of the country as an Islamic Republic, the government feels that any move towards altering the blasphemy laws will infuriate religious extremists who might reciprocate in unfavourable ways. In 2011, the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated for criticising the blasphemy law while advocating for justice for Asia Bibi – a Christian woman who was sentenced to death over allegations of defaming the Prophet. The then government that had initially announced its intention to amend the law fell silent on the subject after Taseer’s assassination.
Repealing the law doesn’t alone or automatically mean the end of the woes of the Christian community. While it may bring about a change in the relationship politics between the majority and minority groups, this will be short-lived. Instead of promising to alter or remove the blasphemy law, one solution would be to create a national consensus on the need to reform the law by highlighting the death tolls and cases of abuse this law has invoked on minority groups.
However, the current trajectory of affairs indicates that the government will remain cautious on the issue as radical elements continue to grow in Pakistan. In the process, it will continue to disregard international humanitarian laws and continue to commit human rights violations by backing the interests of one section of the society whilst excluding the aspirations of the other.