VIEW : Challenging Pakistan’s blasphemy laws takes courage — Nasir Saeed
Shahbaz Bhatti knew death was a risk that came with the role of being the minorities’ minister but he never shirked from criticising the blasphemy laws and calling injustice what it was
It is very unfortunate that during his recent visit to the UK Paul Bhatti said Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were not a problem. Bhatti is the brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, the heroic Pakistani minorities’ minister who was tragically murdered by extremists because he dared to criticise Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In an address at the House of Commons last week, Bhatti played down the link between the blasphemy laws and the intense persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
For anyone aware of the situation facing minorities in Pakistan, such a position is astonishing. This is because the blasphemy laws have been instrumental in some of the most upsetting examples of injustice against Christians. Take for example Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is being dragged through a gruelling appeals process to overturn her death sentence for blasphemy, a process which has already gone on over three years and could take many more before any final decision is handed down from the Pakistani courts.
Most recently there was the case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old with a lower mental age who was falsely accused of blasphemy by an imam. Only a few weeks after the case against her made international headlines, it came to light that the imam, her principal accuser, had in fact concocted the evidence himself. The life of a young girl could have been ended because of his lies.
Yet cases like these are not rare. These are simply the most notorious and the ones that gained international attention. There are many more cases of blasphemy against Christians that never get heard of outside Pakistan. Rimsha was extremely lucky because her case went global and drew worldwide condemnation at the political level. Having been given sanctuary in Canada, she and her family are safe for the time being from Pakistan’s unjust laws. But other Christians are not so lucky. Those who remain in Pakistan get up each day and go about their business knowing that at any time they could be subjected to false accusations of blasphemy by disgruntled Muslim neighbours or colleagues who see an easy way of getting one over them. With the law and the authorities on their side, what have they got to lose?
Every Christian in Pakistan is at the risk of a false blasphemy charge and all that it entails: mob justice, hostile courts, indefinite detention without trial, lengthy prison sentences, or a death sentence. Although no one has been executed so far for blasphemy in Pakistan, the appeals process to have the sentence overturned takes years, in which time the accused languishes behind bars, as much at risk of being killed there as they are outside prison. Many Christians accused of blasphemy have been forced to spend years behind bars before their case has even gone to trial. Savan Masih, of Badami Bagh, Lahore, is currently in jail awaiting trial for blasphemy. Another accused, Martha Bibi, has fled to Sri Lanka where she is applying for asylum. Zaffar Bhatti, also accused of blasphemy, has been denied the right of representation in the courts after the Rawalpindi Bar passed a resolution stating that no lawyer would defend him.
Then there are Christian villages and colonies that have been rampaged through and torched by extremists, where innocent bystanders have been brutally murdered and homes and businesses callously destroyed. All because of spurious blasphemy allegations. And despite the wanton destruction, the Muslim perpetrators are let off the hook time and time again and in some cases, it is the Christians who are arrested by the authorities for agitation.
Paul Bhatti is either seriously ill-informed or taking a ‘gently, gently’ approach to speaking out on behalf of Pakistan’s beleaguered religious minorities. I’m afraid Pakistan is not the kind of country where that approach works. Nor will it be very effective in raising awareness of the situation outside Pakistan where there are many lobby groups and human rights campaigners all clamouring for the attention and intervention of western governments. A strong and unequivocal voice is needed both within Pakistan, where arrogant Islamists think they have the right to trample all over minorities, and outside Pakistan where the world is so often busy and self-engaged.
In his talk at Parliament last week, Bhatti blamed the persecution against Christians on religious education in schools and the anti-minorities language in textbooks. This is, of course, a factor, but to try and suggest that this is the primary cause of persecution in Pakistan is a serious misinterpretation of the facts. Human rights campaigners at last week’s talk were left scratching their heads and wondering if Bhatti, the current chair of the Pakistani minorities’ alliance, is the man for the job of defending the country’s minorities.
Shahbaz Bhatti knew death was a risk that came with the role of being the minorities’ minister but he never shirked from criticising the blasphemy laws and calling injustice what it was. That same determination is not yet apparent in his brother but Paul Bhatti should have on his mind the lives that were lost already for the cause: Shahbaz Bhatti, Salmaan Taseer, Bishop John Joseph, Naimt Ahmer, Tahir Iqbal and many more. There are mothers who have lost sons, children who were orphaned, wives who are now widows, and homes that have been forever destroyed.
Being a Christian in Pakistan is not easy. Therefore, it goes without saying that speaking up for Christians in Pakistan is also not going to be easy. But if no one musters the courage to do it, things are never going to change. Even the Lord himself had to pay a heavy price to tell the truth to a fallen world but eventually enough people listened and things changed; the Rome Empire fell. Paul Bhatti is in the position to speak to those who cannot only listen but also effect real change. But the question is: will he use it?