Someone needs to hold Pakistan to account on religious freedom

Nasir Saeed

Last week I had an opportunity to hear from Andrew Bennett, Canada's Religious Freedom Ambassador, and Dr Paul Bhatti, chairman of All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance and brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated by extremists for speaking against the blasphemy laws.

The two men were speaking on religious freedom with a particular focus on Pakistan in a session at Canada House, London, organised by the Canadian High Commission and members of the Bhai's community (a report of the session is here).

Religious freedom is a universal right protected by several international treaties and conventions, and it is important for every country to protect their citizens' beliefs whether it is a single religion country or plural society, and regardless of whether the country is a member of international bodies or has not signed any formal treaties.

Pakistan is in fact a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its Article 18 protecting religious freedom. Yet harassment of Christians is a daily occurrence and religious minorities there do not enjoy full religious freedom. For one thing, Islam is the state religion and non-Muslims cannot hold the offices of the president and prime minister. They also cannot become head of any government institute.

Freedom of religion is a much broader concept than simply allowing people to believe in the privacy of their own homes. It encompasses freedom to worship, to practise the faith publicly, and to change one's religion. Although Pakistani laws do not prohibit anyone from changing their religion or belief, there are in reality many cultural, social and religious barriers to doing so and the consequences are often fatal. Even if you were a Christian who converted to Islam and who later wished to return to Christianity, the same difficulties would exist.

In Pakistan, Muslims are unable to change their faith because of strict rules within their religion and unofficial sharia laws. If anybody changes their religion that person becomes an apostate. Apostasy is not illegal under the country's laws, but the family, Muslim religious leaders and the wider Muslim community would find it utterly unacceptable and there is a good chance the apostate would be killed. Not everyone will be killed. Punishment for deserting Islam depends on the family's background and the environment they are living in, but punishment is inevitable in some form or other.

For example, and old friend of mine, Q I Butt, was from a Muslim background and when he converted to Christianity he was admonished and given a chance to repent. When he stood by his decision, his family disowned him. He got off lightly. It is mostly the case that the person will be killed as happened to Tahir Iqbal, who converted to Christianity and was falsely accused of blasphemy and killed in jail. Ghulam Nabi also converted to Christianity, was accused of blasphemy, and killed by his own family members.

In the case of a Muslim woman there is no mercy. Several years ago a woman called Raheela from Lahore was murdered by her own brother when he came to learn that she was taking an interest in Christianity and wanted to be baptised. After killing her, he presented himself to the police and admitted his sister's murder. Muslims in Pakistan have been too ready to take the law into their own hands in these matters, aware that the law is on their side.

I know of some people who, after converting to Christianity, received death threats and applied for asylum in the UK. Although Pakistani laws do not stop you from changing your religion, at the same time there is no law which can protect you from being persecuted or killed. Pakistan has a dual justice system whereby shariah can be incorporated into the secular laws on the whims of the courts and the police, who often sympathise with the killers and regard the crime they committed as an act of Islam and therefore no crime at all. Not surprisingly, there are 'secret believers' in Pakistan - people who have converted to Christianity but who practise the faith unbeknownst to their Muslim friends and family.

Although 95% of Pakistanis are Muslim, they are divided into different sects which very often attack each other. The killing of Shias is on the rise while the remaining 5% of religious minorities are suffering for being non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan has given them some rights and they are allowed to go to their places of worship but they are not allowed to openly manifest and propagate or preach their religion. Simply for being non-Muslim, they are looked down upon as inferior human beings and treated as second class citizens in Pakistan.

There is a great need to work on and promote religious freedom in Pakistan but it is very important for the advocates of religious freedom to plan strategies for promoting religious freedom in a manner that honours the local culture and rule of law, including the existing framework of international human rights laws.

Andrew Bennett seems very able for his human rights role, but Paul Bhatti, also the former Minister for Harmony, seems to be a newcomer in this field and has not impressed Pakistani Christians. In his talk last week, there was surprise and I have to say, some disbelief that he failed to single out the blasphemy laws as the cause of persecution against Pakistani Christians. It was only later in the Q&A session, when he was pressed on the issue, that he made some comments and even then it was to say that the blasphemy laws were not the problems but rather the Pakistani education system and the language being used in text books.

Bhatti's position is troubling to Pakistani Christians who I would say rightly regard the blasphemy laws as the root of persecution against religious minorities in Pakistan - bearing in mind that they carry a mandatory death penalty. His own brother, a most beloved and popular Christian politician, was murdered because he challenged the existence of these laws and the part they were playing in the persecution of religious minorities. Interestingly, Bhatti is the head of Pakistan's minorities alliance and hardly raised a word in his talk about persecution.

Perhaps Paul Bhatti's unusual stance has something to do with the fact that he was handed the role of Minister of Harmony simply for being Shahbaz Bhatti's brother. He has yet to prove himself and most certainly lost an opportunity in this talk to tell the world about the persecution being experienced by Christians and religious minorities in Pakistan.

The fact is that blasphemy laws have become a major source of oppression against minorities, especially Christians. The unique feature of the laws is that they are applicable to non-Muslims alone. They do not apply to Muslims who denigrate other religions and their holy persons. So many innocent people have lost their lives because of false blasphemy accusations. Several churches and Christian towns have been ransacked and torched, but Bhatti still thinks the law is not a problem.

Shahbaz Bhatti was all too aware of this and spoke fearlessly both within Pakistan and on the international level about the misuse of these laws. He worked tirelessly for these laws to be reformed so that the misuse would end. Paul Bhatti claims to be advancing his brother's vision, yet his goals seem to be very different. The campaign work of his late brother should be his own starting point and many Christians are looking to him to be their voice as they themselves are so powerless.

It is very important that religion be separated from the state so that religious freedom can be respected. Quaid e Azam, the founding father of Pakistan, rightly said that religion was not the business of the state and that people of all religions, whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Parsi, should be able to live freely as Pakistanis. This is the vision I hope Paul Bhatti has before him and finds the courage to advocate. Because this is the vision that the state should be promoting and someone needs to hold our nation's leaders to account. With Shabaz Bhatti gone, this role falls to his brother.

I appreciate that talking about religious freedom is difficult in Pakistan, with its atmosphere of hatred, religious intolerance and terrorism. But it is not impossible. Let us hope that Bennett and Bhatti and many others can succeed in their mission, and that everyone will one day be able to enjoy their full right of religious freedom, without anyone being killed in the name of religion. The biggest hindrance to this is most certainly the blasphemy laws and whilst these laws remain on Pakistan's statute book, advancement of religious freedom will remain a difficult task. Paul Bhatti take note.