The Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

  • Fr John O'Brien

Shahzad and his pregnant wife Shama Masih, murdered for their faith

Shahzad and his pregnant wife Shama Masih, murdered for their faith

A few days ago I experienced a deep cleavage in my heart: a wonderful joy that at long last Assia Bibi had been declared innocent of the false charge of blasphemy and a deep sorrow that a young man I know, Yaqub Bashir had been sentenced to 25 years for blasphemy even though there was strong evidence that at the time of the alleged crime, he was in a psychotic state as a result of continued drug abuse. I had personally obtained that evidence at the psychiatric hospital in Hyderabad, shortly after his arrest. How did this awful state of affairs arise, whereby innocent people, generally from the minorities, are constantly threatened by death?

During the Zia dictatorship (1977-1988), two sections were added to the Penal Code (295): Section B, making wilful damage of even an extract from the Noble Quran punishable by life imprisonment; and C, making any derogatory remarks about the Prophet of Islam, even indirectly or by innuendo, punishable by death or life imprisonment, further amended in 1990 by Nawaz Sherif - much lauded by the western media for his 'pro-business policies' - to make it punishable only by death.

A very large number of cases have been registered under 295C, mostly on trumped-up charges with no relation to religion. In some instances, the accused have been murdered by sectarian gangs. The burning of over 100 Christian houses in Badami Bagh Lahore in 2013 on trumped-up charges of blasphemy was sparked off by a Muslim in the illegal liquor business having a disagreement with his Christian partner, but the mob were being spurred on by a land mafia who wished to take control of the area. Once again the Government failed to act to protect the Christians. Half of all the cases registered have been against people of the minority communities: a figure disproportionate by a factor of more than 15, and a clear indication of biased application of the law.

In the post-Zia era, different Heads of State have undertaken to amend these laws, in each case retreating before threats from fundamentalists. In 2000 Musharraf tried to ensure that senior police officers were obliged to investigate and substantiate allegations of blasphemy before the alleged blasphemer was charged. In May 2000, under Islamist pressure, he felt forced to back down. Four years later in 2004, Pakistan's National Assembly succeeded in passing similar reforms, but overwhelming evidence suggests that police forces have not observed these changes, that Christians are still directly imprisoned and charged with blasphemy on the say-so of accusers, and that government authorities are unwilling to ensure the amended laws are observed.

The government, following the assassinations of Salman Tasir and Shabaz Bhatti who had urged changing the Blaspemy laws, capitulated further. In 2011, PM Gilani went 'to great lengths …to ease sceptics' mistrust about his government's stance over the controversial blasphemy law that he said nobody wanted to change.' This shameful surrender was in the face of threat from the religious right to continue agitating for the retention of the Blasphemy Law, unless the PM made a pledge on the floor of parliament. Gilani did their bidding: "We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change this law. Neither the government has formed any committee, nor the speaker, to consider amending this law," he said, to cheers from both sides of the House.


Christians are increasingly under violent attack from armed groups of Islamist extremists. Atrocities have been perpetrated in Bahawalpur, Shantinagar, Muree, Islamabad, Sangla Hill, Sukkur, Gojra, Sialkot, Lahore, Peshawar and in several other places leading to very many deaths. After each atrocity, the Christians receive an increasingly hollow-sounding promise that such a thing will never occur again, that they will be fully compensated, that the perpetrators will be brought to book and that the legal procedures relating to the Blasphemy laws will be tightened. The atrocities keep on happening and the empty promises keep on being repeated. One year after the Peshawar Church massacre, of 23/9/13 where almost 100 were killed and over 200 injured, compensation had still not been paid for the murdered victims, to the expressed ire of the Supreme Court.

In the Gojra atrocity, seventy houses were burned down with women and children burned to death. The mob prevented the Fire Brigade from arriving and the appeal for police protection was ignored. The inquiry tribunal headed by High Court Judge Iqbal Hameedur Rehman in its report, proposed amendments to Penal Code 295, 295-A, 295-B as well as sections of 296-7-8. Among reasons given for the riots that killed 7 Christians and displaced 96 Christian families were: inadequate action by law enforcement agencies; irresponsible behaviour of the administration; and not invoking the Punjab Maintenance of Public Order Act, which amounted to allowing the miscreants to wreak havoc. The attacks were premeditated; local officials had been aware of the threat, but failed to act. Although several persons were charged, the victims were reportedly pressured to drop the cases; all of the alleged attackers were acquitted or granted bail. Here as in many other instances, the authorities are unable or unwilling to protect Christians, or to bring the perpetrators of anti-Christian violence to justice.

A list of anti-Christian violence would be a long one. On 20-9-2001, 13 year old Christian Riaz Masih was beaten to death in Rawalpindi; on 9-8-2002 grenades were thrown at Christian worshipers in Taxila killing four and injuring 20; on 15-9-2002 gunmen executed seven workers in a Christian welfare organisation in Karachi; on 5-1-2004 Father Mukhtar Masih Barkat was shot dead in Multan; in May 2004 Samuel Masih became the seventh person accused of blasphemy to be murdered; beaten to death by a police officer with an iron bar, before the courts could deliver a verdict.

That same month Javed Anjum was kidnapped and tortured for five days by madrassa students in Toba Tek Singh before dying of his injuries; in April 2005 a Christian, Baber Sampson and his driver were murdered in Peshawar; in April and May 2004 two Christian girls, aged just two and a half and seven, were raped near Lahore; in March 2005 madrassa students attacked a Church under construction in Islamabad injuring 65 and leading the authorities to close the church; in November 2005 three churches, a convent and six Christian family homes were set on fire by a mob; in June 2007 a young Christian man was tortured and gang-raped by up to 30 men for refusing to convert to Islam. I can assure readers that this calendar of mayhem is by no means exhaustive.

Samuel Masih, accused of throwing waste at a mosque, was jailed in Lahore on 23-8-2003. Charged with blasphemy, he was held for nearly a year until 22-5-2004 when he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Two days later he was attacked by a police officer and died of his injuries. Nasir Masih was arrested on 14-8-2004, accused by some Muslims of theft. Tortured for three days by five policemen, he was brought before a Magistrates court on 16th August and despite his condition, was jailed. Denied prompt medical attention, he was later hospitalized but died of his injuries on 19th August.

In July 2010, two brothers, Christians, gratuitously accused of writing a pamphlet critical of the Prophet were shot dead while in police custody on court premises in Faisalabad. In the days prior to the killings, several Islamist demonstrations were held demanding their deaths. No action was reportedly taken against those instigating violence through loudspeakers in mosques.

The now celebrated case of Assia Bibi, a Christian woman, then aged 37, sentenced to death under section 295 C PPC by Judge M. Naveed Iqbal on 8-11-2010 in Sheikhupura, is of particular note. While working on a farm on 8-6-2009, she was accused of blasphemy, following a hot exchange of views with Muslim co-workers, who refused to drink from a container of water she carried, claiming it was tainted because of her caste and religion. After 8 days, the complainant, a mosque leader who had not been present at the incident, lodged a First Information Report (FIR) under the blasphemy laws and she was arrested. Assia had no lawyer. Even on the day of her verdict, she was not accompanied by a lawyer. Illiterate, she was obliged to put her thumbprint on papers that were not explained to her, but were used to incriminate her.

A report by Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti - later assassinated -concluded that the case against Aasia Bibi had been registered on "grounds of personal enmity" and recommended a pardon. Much of the commentary on the case has focused on her likely innocence. All she did was speak up for her human dignity and her religion. The problem is not only a craven judiciary; the population at large has yet to be convinced that these laws are cruel and anachronistic. The threat to the accused comes from enraged mobs, with the police playing the role of guilty bystanders and the judgments of lower courts fuelling murderous rage.

The imam of a major mosque in Peshawar offered 500,000 Rupees reward for anyone who kills Assia Bibi, determined to have her killed, regardless of her innocence. "We expect her to be hanged and if she is not hanged, then we will ask mujahideen and Taliban to kill her." We now witness a resurgence of this bloodthirst. Flimsy and obviously contrived, this case is particularly disturbing. When there was speculation about a presidential pardon, the Lahore High Court issued an order barring President Zardari from exercising his constitutional authority to pardon Aasia Bibi. She remained imprisoned on death row in solitary confinement, for 8 years and now the outcome is once again uncertain as Imran Khan, who stridently supported the Blasphemy laws in his recent electoral campaign, has agreed not to oppose a court petition to reverse Assia's release. It also pledged to have her name put on the exit control list (ECL) which would prevent her leaving the country. Some extremists will view that as a licence to kill.

Implementation of the Blasphemy laws has little to do with genuine religious sensibilities. In no single case of atrocities against Christians, has the charge of defilement of the Qur'an ever stood up. In nearly every case the basic issue was shown to be a matter of envy or revenge in relation to an everyday matter. Jealousy towards Christians who have improved their living conditions is a powerful motor of sectarian hatred. Through educational and social advancement, much of it made possible by the Church, many are now competitors for scarce resources and opportunities. Accusing them of blasphemy is one sure way to place them once again outside the bounds of respectability.

Pakistani Islamism conflates religious minority and caste-based inferiority. The construction of dhimmitude (tolerated minorities) in Pakistani ideology is focused through the lens of 'untouchability' as internalized from the Hindu caste system which still permeates Muslim sensibilities. Christians are forced to shoulder the stigma of low caste inferiority, constantly reinforced in the media and in the school curriculum. The effect of the Blasphemy laws has been to remove constitutional protection from Christians, rendering them highly vulnerable to exploitation, intimidation and violence.

The interplay of Islamic, caste and feudal constructions of minority is illustrated by the case of 11 year-old Christian, Salamat Masih in 2007, whose pet pigeons flew onto the property of a landlord. An argument with Zahid the 6 year old son of the landlord, ensued; the latter later saying he saw the illiterate Salamat writing words insulting to the Prophet. Salamat was beaten but told the only way he could be spared was to accuse another Christian, Rehmat Masih. Then his uncle Manzoor Masih was arrested and charged with co-authoring the scraps of paper. Rahmat was hated because he had the audacity to refuse to work for a landlord and cultivated his own tiny parcel of land. Rehmat and Salamat were sentenced to death for blasphemy. Manzoor was murdered in broad daylight by Maulvi Fazl Haq.

Everyone knew the charges were all lies, but the landlord had to preserve his izzat (honour) and the maulvis, their power to manipulate the masses. The judges played safe and found the defendants guilty. The police stood idly by.

Most Pakistani, deep respect for the Qur'an notwithstanding, do not support this murderous system but are powerless to do much about it. Over a very long period, powerful interests have exploited religion to close people's eyes to the injustices that oppress all Pakistanis. Western powers have similarly closed their eyes.

Tags: Blasphemy, Pakistan, John O'Brien, Asia Bibi, Salman Tasir, Shabaz Bhatti

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