The state of Pakistan was formed during the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, to provide a state for India’s Muslims. In 1956, it became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Originally in two parts, East and West Pakistan, the east seceded in 1971 and became Bangladesh.
Pakistan’s founders protected religious freedom – the vision of founding father and first Governor-General Mohammed Ali Jinnah was that Pakistan would be a home for religious minorities alongside Sunni Muslims (the majority of Pakistan’s Muslims). However, successive governments have pursued a policy of Islamisation of the legal system, taxation and public life that has led to discrimination against religious minorities (notably Christians, Ahmadi and Shi’a Muslims and Hindus) and Sharia law has increasingly been applied, even to Christians and Hindus (despite this contravening the constitution), especially in parts of the northwest where Islamist groups have control.
Under Pakistani law, leaving Islam (apostasy) and the proselytising of Muslims are not offences, and Christians have freedom to worship. Under Sharia, however, apostasy is punishable by death.
In recent years, Pakistan has experienced tension between progressive modernists and Muslim fundamentalists, and minorities face the threat of extremist attacks, exacerbated by the influence of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Christians in Pakistan
The majority of Pakistani Christians live in Punjab province, which is by far the most populous province and is home to dozens of extremist organisations. Christians in other provinces usually live in urban areas.
Most Christians are from poor backgrounds, with little education, and work as cleaners, street sweepers and litter pickers or are trapped in slavery as bonded brick kiln labourers. Christians often live together in colonies or groups in slums or poor areas of rural villages, making them easy targets for mob attacks by Muslim extremists.
In recent years, militant Islamists have killed or injured hundreds of Christians in attacks on churches, schools and hospitals. The deadliest attack on Christians was the bombing of All Saints Church, Peshawar (pictured), in September 2013, killing 127 people.
In March 2015, 17 Christians were killed in suicide attacks on two churches in Lahore, capital of Punjab province. Another 80 were injured in the attacks, which were carried out by Taliban offshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and took place during Sunday services in Youhanabad Colony, one of Pakistan’s largest Christian colonies.
On Easter Sunday 2016, 72 people were killed in an anti-Christian suicide bomb attack in Lahore launched by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Over 370 people were injured. The terrorists were targeting Christian families who had gone to a park after Easter services in a nearby church. Those killed were mainly women and children, many of them Muslim.
Another issue for Christians is that every year an estimated 700 Christian girls and women are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors. This has increased in frequency in recent years, and is also an issue for Hindus. Perpetrators know that the likelihood of conviction is low.
The Blasphemy Laws
A major religious freedom issue in Pakistan concerns the controversial blasphemy laws, which Imran Khan, who became Prime Minister in August 2018, has said he intends to uphold. The laws cover offences such as defiling the Quran and defaming the prophet Mohammed and are often misused to settle personal scores, resulting in many innocent people spending years enduring appalling conditions in prison awaiting trial, their families forced into hiding, and some have to emigrate for safety once acquitted.
Blasphemy is dealt with under Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code. The original law, based on the British colonial penal code of 1860, simply forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. It was amended in 1927 by the insertion of Section 295-A, which deals with deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. In 1982 the president, General Zia, added an amendment, Section 295-B, which made willfully defiling the Quran an offence punishable with life imprisonment.
These blasphemy laws require that an offence be intentional. They were seldom used until 1986, when General Zia amended them again, adding Section 295-C to forbid defamation of the prophet Mohammed. Initially, the punishment for breaking this law was either the death penalty or life imprisonment, but a 1991 ruling made the death penalty mandatory. Unlike the rest of Section 295, section 295-C omits any requirement for the offence to be committed deliberately or with criminal intent.
The mandatory death sentence and lack of requirement to prove criminal intent make this law a cause of fear to the Christian community, stoked by the influence of local mullahs in rousing Islamists against alleged blasphemers. Muslims as well as members of minority religions are at risk, and it is easy to break the laws accidentally. In March 2013, a 3,000-strong mob destroyed nearly 300 homes in a Christian colony in Lahore over a false allegation of blasphemy.
Several Christians have spent years on death row for alleged blasphemy, notably Punjab farm labourer Asia Bibi (pictured). Since 1986, more than 1,000 people have been accused under the blasphemy laws, with over 50% of the cases involving religious minorities. No one has been executed for blasphemy by the government, but since 1990 extremists have murdered at least 65 people over blasphemy allegations, including lawyers, two judges and over 50 defendants on release (at least 15 of whom were Christians). Once an accusation has been made, some extremists see it as their duty to kill the person concerned, whether or not their guilt has been proven.
Lawyers who defend those accused of blasphemy face threats of violence, and judges are often afraid to hear prominent cases, knowing their lives are in danger. Extremist organisations often bring busloads of protesters to intimidate those involved in legal proceedings. A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan lawyer was shot dead in May 2014 for defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy.
Some senior politicians, including the late Benazir Bhutto, promised to amend the laws, but this has not happened because of extremist threats. Ms Bhutto abandoned plans to reform the laws after a three-day strike. In 2011, two senior government figures – Salman Taseer and Shabhaz Bhatti – were assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy laws and their support for Asia Bibi.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was a liberal Muslim who spoke out against the misuse of the blasphemy laws. He visited Asia Bibi in prison in November 2010 and arranged for her to sign an appeal for clemency, which he presented to President Asif Ali Zardari. In January 2011, his bodyguard shot him dead. In March 2011, the Taliban shot dead Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti (pictured), the only Christian in cabinet. He too had been an outspoken opponent of the blasphemy laws and had supported Asia Bibi.
(AINA/Barnabas/BBC/Compass Direct/CSW Pakistan Report July 2014/Operation World/VOM/World Watch Monitor)
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Pakistani Embassy in Dublin on religious freedom issues, campaigning particularly for reform of the blasphemy laws and for the release of Asia Bibi. These issues have been discussed in several meetings with successive Ambassadors.
In March 2012, Church in Chains promoted a Topical Issues debate in the Dáil (Irish parliament) in which the Irish government publicly called for Asia Bibi’s case to be resolved and the blasphemy laws reviewed. In 2011, Church in Chains supporters sent hundreds of postcards calling for the release of Asia Bibi to the Pakistani Embassy in Dublin and a petition signed by 26 TDs and Senators was presented to the Embassy.
In association with partner organisations, Church in Chains has helped to furnish a refuge in Pakistan for Christian women who have been threatened, assaulted and raped, and it has helped to fund the operation of Christian schools.
Pastor Zafar Bhatti has had his appeal hearing against his blasphemy conviction postponed until 5 March 2019.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court, meeting under heavy security, has dismissed a petition to review its acquittal of Asia Bibi last October.
On Tuesday 29 January Pakistan’s Supreme Court will hear the review petition against its decision to acquit Asia Bibi.
On 13 December a Pakistani court sentenced Christian brothers Qaisar and Amoon Ayub to death for blasphemy after they were convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in material posted on their website.
More than a month after her acquittal was announced, Asia Bibi is still in protective custody and has not yet been reunited with her daughters.