By Abdullah Zahid with Beena Sarwar
“Manzoor Masih – will be remembered!… The Christians of Shanti Nagar – will be remembered!… Rimsha Masih – will be remembered!… ”
Activist and dancer Sheema Kermani led the chanting, evoking the names of a long list of Pakistani Christian individuals and communities targeted by extremist elements in the name of religion over the years.
The latest violence took place on Wednesday in Jaranwala town in Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur) district in Punjab, the country’s largest province, with the highest concentration of Christians. The 2.6 million strong community (1.27 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million population) is the second-largest religious minority after Hindus.
Hundreds of demonstrators joined Kermani on Saturday under a Karachi landmark, three marble ‘swords’ emblazoned with the words ‘Unity, Faith, Discipline’ – slogans attributed to the country’s founder M.A. Jinnah, revered as the ‘Quaid-i-Azam’ or Great Leader.
On Sunday, the Christian community in Jaranwala held services at the destroyed churches. And in Washington D.C. several dozen Pakistani Christians and Muslims gathered at a prayer vigil in solidarity.
Honour the white stripe
Pakistan’s first Minority Rights March took place on 11 August annually observed since 2009 as National Minorities Day. This year, the date marked the 76th anniversary of Jinnah’s 1947 speech before the Constituent Assembly, in which he promised freedom of religion to Pakistani citizens. The white stripe in Pakistan’s flag symbolises the country’s minorities.
On 11 August 2023, demonstrations across the country brought together diverse minority groups together with mainstream Muslim allies in a public space – Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds — Tamil, Maratha, Gujarati, Marwari, Kathiawari, Sindhi, and Thari.
The March presented an 11-point charter of demands, calling to amend the ‘blasphemy laws’, stop forced conversions, protect minorities’ worship places, ensure equitable representation in institutions, update the curriculum and curb violent religious groups.
A street theatre play presented by Sheema Kermani’s feminist group Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement) at the March during the march highlighted these issues.
‘Blasphemy’ accusations have grown exponentially since 1987, when the then military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq amended a previous colonial-era law dealing with the offence of ‘injuring religious sentiments’. Besides adding harsh punishments, the critical words ‘malicious intent’ were dropped.
Until then, Pakistan saw just seven accusations of ‘blasphemy’ and two extrajudicial killings. Now, anyone can file a case against ‘blasphemy’ transgressions, real or imagined. Independent investigations find that these accusations often disguise personal vendettas.
Section 295-C provides capital punishment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). After the option of life imprisonment became defunct in 1991, it stipulates a mandatory death penalty.
The first ‘blasphemy’ murder took place shortly afterwards. A Christian poet and schoolteacher Naimat Ahmar was killed in Faisalabad, after posters about his alleged transgression cropped up around town. Since then, at least 85 people have been killed following such allegations.
The late lawyer, UN rapporteur, and HRCP founder Asma Jahangir bravely defended the several ‘blasphemy’ accused individuals in the spate of accusations that cropped up after the law changed, facing threats and attacks. The defendants included the unlettered minor Salamat Masih, his father Rehmat Masih, and uncle Manzoor Masih. Manzoor died under a hail of bullets from unknown assailants outside a district court in 1994. After Jahangir obtained acquittal for Salamat and Rehmat, they had to flee abroad.
In 2019, at least 40 were serving life or on death row for ‘blasphemy’. From 1987 to 2022, over 2,000 ‘blasphemy’ cases have been filed. This year saw 57 cases of alleged blasphemy and four extrajudicial killings between January and May.
Of those imprisoned under these laws, 52% belong to religious minority communities, while 48% are Muslims from various sects.
Pakistan’s religious minorities form about 5% of the country’s 220 million strong population.
What can be done to reverse the injustices?
To start with, “the words ‘malicious and deliberate intent’ need to be inserted into the law as ordered by the Federal Shariat Court in 1990 citing the International Commission of Jurists,” says Lahore-based researcher Arafat Mazhar, talking to Sapan News.
His long-term project Engage Pakistan, based on years of solid research, includes a series of animated films to create awareness about these issues. He also started a petition this year outlining steps to Stop the Abuse and Weaponization of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws.
Many of the Minority Rights March organisers are also part of the annual Aurat or Women’s March launched in 2016 outside the colonial-era Frere Hall, Karachi. Other linked movements that started from that venue include one in support of the transgender community last year and a Climate March in June.
Minority Rights March, 11 August 2023: Artist and activist Sheema Kermani with others marching from Frere Hall to Karachi Cantt. Station. Photo: Abdullah Zahid/ Sapan News
“Each march inspires more activism and reminds us of the spirit of resistance that continues to exist here,” says feminist sociologist Nida Kirmani who works on gender and urban marginality in Southasia and joined the Minority Rights March in Karachi.
The demonstrations also remind the authorities of their responsibility to protect the rights of all citizens, she told Sapan News.
Activists have long been calling for the state to hold the culprits accountable. Many demonstrated again in Karachi on Saturday to renew these calls after the Jaranwala attacks.
Such activism is necessary and must continue regardless of political turmoil or changes in government, says poet and scientist Gauhar Raza of Anhad India, watching the situation from New Delhi.
“In the darkest period, we need such voices to keep the torch alight,” he tells Sapan News. “We need to give credit to those who consistently stand for what’s right, whether in Pakistan, India, or elsewhere.”
The Jaranwala violence on 16 August is a chilling reminder of how religion continues to be misused in Pakistan. The pattern is familiar. There’s a quarrel or disagreement between two parties. Some hours or days later, there are accusations of ‘blasphemy’ amplified through mosque loudspeakers, followed by the violence.
Such accusations against two brothers from the Christian faith in Jaranwala, broadcast through mosque loudspeakers, incited the recent violence. Mobs armed with stones, sticks and daggers, including children armed with sticks, attacked and set ablaze churches, homes, and the office of the assistant commissioner of Jaranwala, a Christian, who was not on the premises at the time. They desecrated Bibles and vandalised a cemetery.
As many as 36 “registered and nonregistered” churches and about 800 homes were vandalised and razed to the ground, displacing approximately 3,000 families including 200 children, says the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation, set up by the family of late war hero, Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry of the Pakistan Air Force. The Foundation has appealed for donations of cash, cooked food, dry rations, and medicines.
This was not the first attack on Christian colonies, most of which are situated in prime land eyed by the land mafia.
In 2009, eight Christians were killed and almost 50 houses torched in a largely Christian neighbourhood in Gojra in a pre-planned attack that the local administration was aware of, reports the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
In March 2013, mobs attacked the Joseph Colony area of Punjab’s capital Lahore, burning some 200 houses. The day before the attack, police asked the Christians to vacate their houses, reports the HRCP.
There are numerous such incidents, with the culprits rarely brought to book. However, over the past few years, the government has begun to respond more effectively.
This time, police moved to arrest over 100 suspects and register cases against leaders of extremist groups Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Jamaat-Ahle-Sunnat.
The turning point in how Pakistan deals with this issue may have been when a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot was lynched in 2021 after ‘blasphemy’ accusations.
“This brought international focus to the issue, and the government of the day felt compelled to respond,” observes Zohra Yusuf, former HRCP Chairperson.
Plus, with the growing economic crisis and as a signatory to various human rights conventions, Pakistan must align its laws with these international treaties in order to retain its GSP+ status with the European Union, she says, talking to Sapan News from Karachi.
The status, reviewed annually, is up for renewal this year.
There was also the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement of 2014 by Justice Tasadduq Jilani, taking suo motu notice of churches torched in Peshawar. The decision called for protection of minorities and freedom of religion. However, many of his recommendations have yet to be implemented, notes Yusuf.
While Pakistan has never executed anyone for ‘blasphemy’, vigilante violence has claimed nearly 90 lives of ‘blasphemy’ accused individuals.
Victims include Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who took up cudgels on behalf of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy’ in 2010.
Taseer’s bodyguard assassinated him in January 2011 and was later executed for murder. Aasia Bibi spent nearly a decade on death row. Acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2018, she was forced into hiding and is now in Canada.
The weaponisation of the ‘blasphemy laws’ has increased, with government and state agencies striking deals with extremist groups, say analysts. In a scathing judgement, Chief Justice-designate Qazi Faez Isa of the Pakistan Supreme Court noted the role of army personnel and private entities in enabling the rise and mainstreaming of extremist groups. He is among the few officials to have visited Jaranwala.
Pakistan’s religious minorities face a backlash when something injures the “religious sentiments” of Muslims. Even cross-border love has repercussions. When Seema Haider, a Pakistani Muslim woman went to India to marry a Hindu man she met online, Pakistan’s Hindu community faced threats and attacks, including grenades thrown at Hindu temples as reports of her change of religion surfaced.
“No Church or a Christian will remain safe in Pakistan,” threatened the extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi after an Iraqi refugee desecrated the holy Quran in Sweden.
“There’s an atrocity in Sweden, and our cross is desecrated here,” lamented Pastor Ghazala, an organiser of the Minority Rights March, talking to the BBC. “Why are you turning Pakistan into another India? Why do you want Manipur violence to be repeated here?”
Senior journalist Jyoti Punwani in Mumbai appreciates the “strong condemnation of the violence against Christians in Pakistan from the heads of all the institutions that matter: the political, the religious and the army,” as well as the inquiry that has been started and promises to restore the churches. “These promises are credible, because in the past, vandalised temples have been rebuilt,” she tells Sapan News.
Pakistan’s responses are “all the more remarkable” because of their contrast to how India’s ruling establishment has responded to communal violence by the majority over the last 9 years, says Punwani. “And we are officially secular! These responses make us ashamed.”
On Sunday, 20 August, members of Hindu right-wing groups barged into a church in New Delhi to stop what they termed a ‘conversion’ service. They tore up Bibles and physically attacked members of the congregation. Many more gathered at the police station where the pastor and church members went to register a case, reports The Wire.
One of the reasons that Pakistan is making an effort to deal more appropriately with such cases is that it “wants to show itself in a better light than India,” comments Zohra Yusuf, talking to Sapan News.
That is not a bad competition to be in.
The Minority Rights March last week included theatre, music and dancing. A troupe from Thar, in colourful traditional costumes signifying the cultural diversity of Pakistan, danced the ‘dandiya’, clashing sticks to the beat of drums and music lyrics. As the rhythmic beat of the popular Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’ sung by folk artiste Shamo Bai faded, participants jumped in front of the stage to dance.
A tableau by young girls depicted the “conversion factory” targeting Hindu girls in Sindh. Some reports estimate the figure of young Hindu girls, some barely 13 or 14 being forcibly converted to be around 1000 annually. There was some relief when the Sindh Assembly passed an Anti-Conversion law in November 2016, but the Standing Committee of Religious Affairs overturned it in 2021.
Sanitary workers in Pakistan, mostly Hindu and Christian, risk their lives daily, working in unsafe conditions. They are forced to enter sewage holes “with zero equipment,” says Chaudhry Waris, who represents the sanitary workers of Union District East Karachi.
The resulting, preventable tragedies are all too common. On May 7th, a Dalit Christian, Babar Masih, 31, drowned in a sewer in Karachi’s upscale Clifton area near the three swords monument, his body retrieved after 13 days. In June, two brothers died in the same way in another part of the city.
The Minority Rights March demands included revision of the curriculum that currently promotes “unhinged bigotry” to quote Dr Vinesh Arya, a religion educationist. It “pits one community against another.”
“At least six sanitation workers, all Christian, have died within the last year after inhaling poisonous sewer gases in otherwise preventable workplace accidents across Pakistan. All were men who had families,” reports Al Jazeera.
The demonstrators also called for a revival of the Thar Express railway line between Karachi, Sindh, and Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Pakistan suspended the service in 2019. Pakistani Hindus now find it even more difficult to visit religious shrines or families across the border. Travel to India now entails a lengthy, expensive journey up-country to cross at the Wagah-Attari border.
With Pakistan still “very, very far”, as Nida Kirmani puts it, from realising the dream of a safe haven for its religious minorities, the activism of groups like Minority Rights March remains ever more relevant.
Disclaimer: This was republished from SAPAN. The original can be read here.