Blasphemy cases are on the rise against Christians, a tiny religious minority, in Pakistan. In the months of June and July, at least four Christians are booked under the alleged blasphemy against Islam. In the latest incident, a Christian man, Nadeem James, 35, was accused of allegedly blasphemy against Islam on WhatsApp. He was on the run and was arrested in Lahore by the police after four days of the incident, and sent to Gujrat jail on judicial remand on 14 July. James is a resident of Yaqoobabad, a Christian neighbourhood in a small town of Sarai Alamgir in the district Gujrat, around 160 kilometres from Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
A Muslim friend of James, Yasir Bashir, informed the local Muslim clerics on 10 July that he had received a blasphemous poem from James on WhatsApp, a messaging app, which was derogatory to Islam and Islamic holy personalities. As the news spread in the town, hundreds of Muslims gathered outside Christian locality to set on fire their houses. However, police managed to control the mob, but Christians fled their homes in hast to save their lives for being attacked by religious hardliners. James, father of two children, aged 8 and 10, also fled his home and was on the run to avoid his arrest because he could face a death penalty under the blasphemy laws. After James’s arrest, police freed two women (Najma Bibi and Samreen Bibi), and one-and-half-years old child of James’s family whom they detained. Two minority members of the Punjab Assembly and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Lahore and Islamabad wanted to visit the area and also wanted to take James’s family members along with them, but the local authorities did not allow them. After their release, all three members of his family were handed over to a federal minister Kamran Michael, a Christian by faith.
On the complaint of Bashir, police has registered an FIR (First Information Report) against James under blasphemy laws’ Sections 295-C and 298-A of Pakistan Penal Code. According to Mail online, James is being punished for marrying a Muslim woman who later converted to Christianity.
Police arrested him after several raids in different towns of Punjab. After his arrest, Police had also recovered the mobile phone, which was used by him for messaging. Because the sensitivity to the issue, police has sealed the FIR and Superintendent Police (SP) of Gujrat Kamran Mumtaz is investigating the case. It is reviled in the initial investigation that it was a forwarded message. There a religious argument was going on between James and Bashir and the message was part of the conversation, according to the local police. James’ brother told the police that his brother was unschooled, so he could not use the app. Around 200 policemen have been deployed to the area to control the law and order situation. Though Christian families are come back to their homes, fear still persists.
Blasphemy is a capital crime in Islamic Republic of Pakistan. According to the Washington Post, “Pakistan has one of the Muslim world’s harshest laws against blasphemy, which includes a wide variety of actions or comments that can be interpreted as defaming Islam.” In a conservative society, anything can be considered blasphemy. It has been proven through many cases that many people use the law to settle their personal vendettas.
Under his Islamisation policy, military dictator General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced several blasphemy laws in 1980s, which have been widely misused mainly against Christians and Ahmadis. Since 1987, around 1,472 Christian, Ahmadi, Hindu and Muslim, men and women, have been accused under these laws.
Blasphemy is hugely a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can stir mob violence. Since 1987, at least 62 people (including Governor Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim, and Christian Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti) have been murdered in extra judicial killing in the name of religious honour, according to Minority Concern’s report. One of the brutal incidents occurred on 4 November 2014. In that incident, under alleged blasphemy charges, a pregnant Christian woman Shama Bibi, 24, and Shahzad Masih, 26, were burnt alive by a Muslim mob of 1,200 in Chak 59, near Kot Radha Kishan town, 60 kilometres away from Lahore. Later, the allegation was proven wrong. On 8 March, 2013, a Christian man, Sawan Masih, was accused of blasphemy and in reaction, 1,000 Muslim men attacked Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore city. Over 175 houses were burnt and ransacked.
In latest incidents, more Christians are facing blasphemy charges. An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Gujranwala, Judge Bushra Zaman, on 28 June, handed down the death sentence to two Christians (Anjum Naz Sindhu, a school principal, and Javed Naz) and a Muslim (Jaffar Ali) over charges of blasphemy. The case was registered against them last year. In early last month, Usman Masih, a Christian man, was accused of sending an offensive text message on Facebook’s messenger.
Christian leaders and human rights activists have been demanding the repeal of these laws as blasphemy allegations have been used against Christians often. However, the government do not touch this issue as it has no appetite to confront the religious right. “Efforts by members of Parliament to introduce more moderate blasphemy laws have been repeatedly stymied by religious leaders and conservative politicians,” Washington Post reported on 12 July.
Pakistan is home to 200 million Muslims and 4 million Christians, who have been subjected to persecution on a daily basis because of their religious affiliation.
- Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan magazine and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.