A black day indeed for Pakistan’s Christians

August has always been an important month for Pakistan. It was on August 14, 1947, that Pakistan gained its independence. Founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah sealed it when he told the Pakistani Constituent Assembly: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State ... We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”

Sixty-three years since that immortal speech and politicians are yet to agree on the kind of freedom Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) meant. Religious minorities can tell you all too well that his vision is yet to be fulfilled. Rather than a state of equal citizens, Pakistan has still never had a single Christian elected to its Parliament. Far worse than that, Christians are being killed by those who would rather see them dead than contemplate recognising them as equals.

But this year, August is significant for two additional reasons. Firstly, the government declared August 11 ‘Minority Day’ (although little credit is due to it while it fails to take any action to end the intense persecution of Christians happening right under its nose. Not surprisingly, Christians felt it more appropriate to re-name it Black Day and protested under that banner).

Secondly, August 1 marked the one year anniversary since the terrible attack on Christians in Gojra and Korian, during which six Christians were burnt to death, locked inside their own home, and dozens of Christian homes and churches were destroyed. A year may have passed but the wounds are still fresh today - I doubt this attack will be ever forgotten.

The government has worked to restore Gojra in the last 12 months but the burnt out house of the six slain Christians still stands blackened with a padlock on the door, a silent testimony to the grief and frustration felt by villagers who have yet to see their attackers brought to justice. An insult that cannot be assuaged by any amount of reconstruction work, the chief suspects continue to roam free and are even threatening deadlier attacks on Christians.

Although a judicial inquiry was conducted by the highest judge in the land, its findings have not been made public and, therefore, it is impossible to know the facts of the case. Astonishingly, the Punjab government tried to promote one police officer we know was suspended for failing to perform his duties at the time of the attacks. The high court judge, to his credit, blocked the officer’s promotion.

The pretext for last year’s attacks was a supposed act of blasphemy committed by residents of Gojra and Korian. Christians are accused of blasphemy with little or no evidence and it is frightening – and often unimaginable to Western Christians – just how quickly these accusations can escalate into disastrous attacks and brutal violence. The blasphemy laws are continually misused by extremists in order to persecute religious minorities and the death penalty for anyone found guilty of committing blasphemy convinces them that it is their right to kill anyone they suspect of insulting Islam. Sadly, the term is open to interpretation and extremists often invent instances of blasphemy as a way of settling personal scores against Christians and other religious minorities – they know anyone accused faces automatic detention without bail. In 2008, Amnesty International stated in a report that all blasphemy cases known to them “appear to be without basis”.

Allegations tend to be accepted without question by members of the criminal justice system who are often intimidated by threats from extremists and mob violence. More distressingly, authorities in Pakistan often do nothing to prevent the filing of unfounded charges and those who make false accusations of blasphemy, or attack or murder Christians are rarely brought to justice, perpetuating the message that those who commit violence against minorities are above the law and will not be punished. Some Christians have reported being tortured in prison by members of the authorities and there is strong evidence to suggest that some Christians have even been murdered by members of the police.

Although no Christian has ever received the death penalty, many are detained in prison indefinitely and at least 35 Christians have been killed extra judicially. Christians can be accused of blasphemy at any time and on extremely spurious grounds, and for this reason they live in constant fear for their lives.

Christians in Gojra desperately seek justice against those who destroyed their community. After the attack on Gojra, thousands protested in Pakistan and worldwide against the government’s failure to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice. Although 18 Muslims were arrested, they were released last September, before the findings of the Inquiry Commission were published. We are no closer to seeing the perpetrators held accountable for their actions.

As we remember the painful events of last year, CLAAS and other organisations continue to campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy laws which are doing so much harm to Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. Murder, the destruction of property, and arbitrary detainment are still the constant fear of those who have committed no crime, but only suffer crimes committed against them. These things will continue so long as the government does nothing to enforce Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan in which all citizens, whether Muslim, Christian or Hindu, are equal.

Nasir Saeed is the coordinator of the UK branch of CLAAS, the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement. The organisation helps persecuted Christians in Pakistan by providing free legal assistance and practical support. www.claas.org.uk