The reality for Christians living under the shadow of Pakistan's blasphemy law

Pakistani women grieve over the coffins of their relatives, who were killed in a suicide attack on a church, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 22 September 2013.(AP)

Living in a land of 97 per cent Muslims, the Christians in Pakistan have the fear of persecution all the time in the guise of threats, discrimination and hatred. But one intimidation that hovers over them every time is the blasphemy law.

Pakistan gained independence in 1947 from the British rule and the Christians living in the subcontinent decided to be part of Pakistan although many have decided differently and preferred to live in India. After independence and until now, the Christians have been serving the nation in different fields from military, to education, to medical, and many other fields.

The Christians of Pakistan are as patriotic and committed to their country as any Muslim living there; in fact the Christians are more despite the problems and hardships they have to suffer.

Yet, unfortunately patriotism and serving the nation doesn't make them a loyal and equal Pakistani as the Muslims living there are. The majority population - the Muslims - always calls Pakistan their land and the land of Muslims. I would mostly argue with my colleagues when they commented on the cricket match: "God, give victory to our team as the Muslims are playing". I would ask them were only the Muslims living in Pakistan and who was I?

The way every matter in life - from game to job, and the list goes on - is affiliated with religion by majority, which restricts their thinking and minds to accept and acknowledge the presence of the minorities living in Pakistan. The same way accusing and implicating Christians in blasphemy is very easy, just like a toy in a child's hand. It is just like a wish coming true to get rid of the Christian person you don't like by accusing him/her of blasphemy.

The blasphemy laws existed even during the British rule in the subcontinent making it a criminal offence not to utter disrespectful words towards any religion. In Pakistan, the late military dictator Mohammad Zia Ul Haq in 1982 made additions and amendments in those laws. The purpose behind the introduction of these changes and additions was to make the society more tolerant and respectful towards the religion followed by the majority population. But the history reveals that how intolerant and cruel the society has become after the introduction of specifically two sections in the legislation.

Two sections of the blasphemy law in Pakistan make others offenders and are mostly manipulated to implicate others and especially the minorities.

Section 295-A clearly states that whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.

"Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine," Section 295-C stipulates.

The National Commission for Justice and Peace reveals during the last 25 years, 1,058 cases of blasphemy were registered. Amongst the accused, 456 were Ahmadis, 449 were Muslims, 132 were Christians and 21 were Hindus. According to the report of the Asian Human Rights Commission, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered, for being implicated in blasphemy charges. Among these were 25 Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist and one Hindu.

It is worth mentioning here that from 1927 to 1986, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in the subcontinent.

Being a Christian and a minority citizen of Pakistan, I can say that none of the minority citizens can even dare to say derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad or even think of defiling the Holy Koran. The Christians living in Pakistan are always fearful of what would happen to them that one day, that someone might implicate them in this offence. It's not an adventure to do it and then spend the rest of life in prison or fleeing away from country or being killed by someone even though the case is under proceedings.

The plea given by the Muslims is that they are also the target of this law. But if they are implicated, it's easy for them to get free, but not for a Christian or Hindu. The Muslim accused can argue that as a Muslim he could not have done such a thing and that someone else out of personal vendetta has done it. But this can't carry any weight for the Christians, who are the biggest victims of this law, keeping in view their meagre population.

It is s matter which brings together different sections of the Muslim population in Pakistan, no matter how many differences they have based on the sects. Although, some liberal minded people are opposed to this, they are a handful and even if they try to do something to abrogate it they are always stopped.

Rimsha, a minor girl who was acquitted by the court after being charged of blasphemy, proves many flaws in the way this law is used. It was a clear message for many ignorant people who use religion as a ploy to target and harass others, which is quite visible in Pakistan.

One fact I knew from covering the story of Rimsha is how truth remains forever and the false stories are forged to hide it. But the truth prevails and set Rimsha free. A poor soul never imagined how being a minor and living with a young mental age would make her fall into the hands of sick-minded people.

I was moved to write this article after reading another story in Pakistan about a Christian pastor, Adnan Masih, who has also been charged with blasphemy.

It's in the hands of the government to make amendments to this law, which is not possible to due to the strong resistance from the religious forces. But unless, the amendments rather the abrogation of the blasphemy laws are carried through, many more similar cases will continue to make the headlines in Pakistan and the unfortunate destiny of the Christians of Pakistan will remain unchanged.

Lubna Thomas Benjamin is the fourth generation of her family to be a Christian.  She is from Rawalpindi and currently resides in the US. 

More News in Comment