Blasphemy in Pakistan

It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds

It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds, tried, and sentenced to prison — or found innocent, set free and then murdered by some Muslim fanatic. This time was different.

The victim this time was a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsa Masih, who is believed to suffer from Down’s syndrome. She was stopped by a young Muslim man who found the half-burned remnants of a book that allegedly included verses from the Quran in her carrier bag. He told the local imam, who called the police, and she was arrested.

This kind of story usually ends badly in Pakistan. Two years ago, for example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested for insulting the Prophet Mohammad while arguing with fellow farm-workers. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but it was such a manifest injustice that the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, publicly called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January 2011.

The bodyguard was tried for murder and convicted, but he was treated as a hero by many Pakistanis, and the judge who sent him to prison had to fl ee the country. Two months later the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead when he spoke out against the blasphemy laws. Since then, almost nobody has dared to criticize them.

Asia Bibi remains in prison awaiting execution. Her entire family, including her five children, live in hiding and cannot work or go to school. And while the higher courts would once have thrown out her conviction – they have overturned hundreds of sentences for blasphemy imposed by lower courts that were too vulnerable to local pressures — she can no longer even be confident of that.

So the outlook seemed grim for Rimsa Masih when she was arrested last month – but then the imam who had called the police, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chisti, was arrested for doctoring the evidence. His own deputy had seen him adding pages from the Quran to the young Christian’s bag.

“I asked him what he was doing,” the deputy told a television station, “and he said this is the evidence against them (the local Christians) and this is how we can get them out from this area.” Two other wit-nesses came forward against Chisti, and Hafiz Mohammad Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior Muslim clerics, declared that “Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chisti did.”

Ashrafiadded that Chisti was acting on behalf of a group who wanted to drive out the Christian minority in the area: “I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa (on their land).” They have already succeeded: some 300 Christian families have fled in fear for their lives, and they probably won’t be back. But at least the state is starting to defy the fanatics.

Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but on Sept. 8, Rimsa Masih was freed on bail, and a military helicopter lifted her out of the prison yard and into hiding. And Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony, whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was murdered last year, broke a political ta-boo by explaining why ordinary Pakistanis are more hostile to the religious minorities in their midst than most Muslims elsewhere.

“It is not just a religious problem,” Bhatti said. “It’s a caste factor, because (the victims) belong to the poorest and most marginalised people. Unfortunately, they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.

”Islam teaches the equality of all believers, but the caste system is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Go far enough back, and almost all Pakistani Muslims are descended from Hindus — and when those Hindu communities converted to Islam, they retained their ideas and prejudices about caste.

This was particularly disheartening for groups at the bottom of the caste pecking order who had hoped that Islam would free them. When the British empire arrived in the area, therefore, it was the poorest and most despised section of the population who converted to Christianity.

So everybody knows that most Christians are really “untouchables.” The argument that got Asia Bibi in trouble, for example, broke out when some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water she had fetched because Christians were “unclean.

”The Hindu minority is mostly just as low-caste as the Christians, and equally vulnerable. Together they are only 6 million out of 187 million Pakistanis, but they account for the vast majority of blasphemy accusations. In many cases, these accusations are merely a convenient weapon for Muslims engaged in land disputes and other quarrels with members of the minority groups.

Maybe the Pakistani government has finally found the nerve to deal with this corrupt law and to protect its victims. The Rimsa Masih case is a hopeful sign. But Pakistan still has a long way to go before all of its citizens are really equal under the law.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Just Posted

Hike for Hospice runs May 5th at West Stettler Park

Make sure to register before April 26th

Alberta’s 47 legislature newbies meet under the dome for orientation day

Most new members are with the United Conservatives, who won a majority government

Easter visit!

Easter Bunny makes a visit to Points West Living

OPINION: Jason Kenney won by portraying himself as the Guardian of Alberta

How did Kenney do it? He never considered himself an opposition leader and didn’t pretend to be one.

Scenes from the Stettler & District Music Festival

Don’t forget to check out the Grand Concert on April 28th

VIDEO: Police dog in Oregon struck by 200 porcupine quills during pursuit

The German shepherd had to be sedated and was in treatment for more than two hours

Oil and gas company confirms death of one of its employees in Yoho avalanche

Dana Coffield died when he was skiing in the Rocky Mountains

Cenovus CEO estimates production curtailments will deliver billions to taxpayers

The curtailment program started Jan. 1 was designed to keep 325,000 barrels per day off the market

Robbery in Leduc County estimated at $40,000

Leduc RCMP investigate break and enter and theft of firearms

Singh says childhood abuse steeled him for scrutiny and stress of politics

He recounts the assaults for the first time in his book Love & Courage

Despite five extra weeks’ parental leave in Canada, dads still face stigma: survey

One reason people said dads don’t need leave is because they can just bond with their kids at weekend

Calgary’s public school board responds to Syrian child’s suicide after bullying

Amal Alshteiwi, a newcomer to Canada from Syria, took her own life several weeks ago

Child, 11, accidentally shot in the chest at Alberta religious colony

Child taken from Hutterite colony to nearby hospital

Woman in critical condition after motorcycle crash on Edmonton highway

Police say both women were thrown from the bike, and the van continued forward, hitting a Nissan Altima

Most Read