The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended in its annual report that Pakistan be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” for its documented religious freedom violations. This would mean Pakistan would be ranked among many of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians such as North Korea and Eritrea. Making up only a small percentage of the country’s population, Pakistan’s Christian community is among the world’s most persecuted. Faced with widespread discrimination and, at times, open hostility, Pakistan’s Christians face an almost daily struggle to survive.
06/02/2017 Pakistan (Pakistan Today) – The US Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has published its annual report on religious freedom in the world. The commission recommended 16 countries – including Pakistan – for their deteriorated condition of religious freedom and demanded that the US Department of State designate these countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC). The report finds Pakistan to be a Muslim majority country of 190 million people with religiously diverse population (comprising 95% Muslims and 5% non-Muslims). The country also has two to four million Ahmadis, who are not counted as Muslim by law.
The report states that religious freedom conditions in Pakistan are marred by religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislations. It declares that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani branch of ISIS and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are continuously targeting civilians as well as the Military, Law Enforcing Agencies, NGOs and the civil society at large, including minorities.
In the realm of religious minorities, according to the USCIRF report, minorities in Pakistan suffer from political and social marginalization. For instance, there are only 10 seats out of 342 in Pakistan National Assembly and no seat in Pakistan Senate.
It is presented that the Government of Pakistan initiated 20 points National Action Plan (NAP), which aims to fight against terrorism/ extremism and calls for stopping hate, crime and violence against religious minorities.
Regrettably, it has also been reported that Section 295 & 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code (Blasphemy laws) inherently violates international standards of freedom of religion and belief. These laws set severe punishment including death or life imprisonment, moreover, accusers are not required to present the evidence that blasphemy occurred which leads to false accusations.
The report brings out that a majority of blasphemy cases occurred in Punjab. At least 40 individuals have been sentenced to death or are serving life imprisonment on blasphemy charges including two Christians – Anjum Naz Sandhu and Javed Naz – while Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010.
Readers may recall the case of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for supporting the acquittal of Asia Bibi and recommending a review of the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri was greeted by the lawyers of Islamabad High Court like a hero and showered with flower petals when he was brought for trial. The judge who sentenced Mumtaz Qadri to death had to flee for his own life because he was receiving death threats. He was ultimately sent to the gallows in 2016 but his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners.
There are dozens of cases of arrests or charges against “blasphemy” in Punjab during reporting period, these charges/arrests occurred, in an atmosphere of societal harassment and violence. In January 2017, an anti-terrorism court acquitted more than 100 suspects accused of participating in a mob attack on a Joseph Colony (Christian Colony in Lahore) in 2013. Readers may recall that the colony was attacked and vandalised after a local Christian man was erroneously accused of “blasphemy”.
“Now far ahead the road has gone…
There are many “blasphemy” cases in which people are punished like Mumtaz Qadri and five others involved in killing of Shehzad and Shama Masih In 2014. It may be recalled that a Christian couple, 35-year-old Shehzad Masih and his 31-year-old wife Shama Bibi, were burned to death by a Muslim mob in the south of Lahore (Punjab province), accused of committing “blasphemy” for allegedly burning pages of the Qur’an. The two, who worked in a clay-baking factory, were kidnapped on November 2 and held hostage for two days inside the factory. On the same morning at 7:00 a.m. the two were beaten and then pushed into the brick kiln.
Shama was pregnant.
According to Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a lawyer and human rights defender who visited the scene of the event, the supposed blasphemy occurred upon the recent death of the Shehzad’s father. Two days prior, Shama had been cleaning her father-in-law’s house, and in the process burned some personal items and papers that seemed useless. A Muslim man saw what she was doing and spread the word in the surrounding villages that the papers she had burned had included pages of the Quran. A mob of over 100 people formed, and took the couple hostage, finally executing them.
Emanuel Sarfraz, a relative of the deceased couple, offered a slightly different version of the events. According to Sarfraz, his cousin Shehzad and his wife Shama had been working in the kiln of Muhammad Yousaf Gujjar.
“The couple along with their four children wanted to leave the kiln as Yousaf was not paying their remuneration. He demanded Rs 500,000 from them, if they wanted to quit … two days ago, after an exchange of words Yousaf locked the couple along with their children in a room,” Sarfraz said.
After two local mosques announced the alleged blasphemy, “a large number of Muslims led by area clerics reached the kiln and dragged the couple out of the room after breaking into it. They first tortured them and then threw them in the kiln,” he said.
In August 2016, Pakistan Senate Committee on Human Rights announced the revision of the blasphemy laws and Pakistan Council of Islamic ideology also asked government to refer the case of blasphemy to it for review.
As of yet, no progress on such cases is in the notice of USCIRF.