In Pakistan, Christianity Earns a Death Sentence -by Omar Waraich

by admin

Governor Salman Taseer’s wife Amina Taseer and daughter Shahar Bano listening Asia Bibi's sad story and expressing concern and sympathy to her.

It all began a year and a half ago, with a quarrel over a bowl of water. A group of women farm workers were suffering in the heat near a village in Pakistans Punjab province. Aasia Noreen, an illiterate 45-year-old mother five, offered them water, but was rebuffed. Noreen was a Christian, they said, and therefore her water was uncleansadly, a common taunt hurled at Pakistan’s beleaguered Christians. But rather than swallowing the indignity, she mounted a stout defense of her faith.
Word of the exchange swiftly filtered through the village of Ittan Wali, in Sheikhupura district. The local mullah took to his mosque’s loudspeakers, exhorting his followers to take action against Noreen. In a depressingly familiar pattern, her defense of her faith was twisted into an accusation of blasphemy, according to her family and legal observers familiar with the case. As a frenzied mob pursued her, the police intervened, taking her into custody. But far from protecting her, they arrested and charged Noreen with insulting Islam and its prophet. And on Nov. 8, after enduring 18 months in prison, she was sentenced to death by a district court, making her the first woman to suffer that fate.

In the ensuing weeks, the case of Noreen, popularly known as Aasia Bibi, has sparked a national furor. Human rights campaigners and lawyers have denounced the sentence. Religious fundamentalist groups, usually at odds with one another, have suddenly coalesced around a campaign to defend the blasphemy law and attack its critics. One politician who called for Noreen to be pardoned now faces a fatwa for alleged apostasy. Another politician, who is trying to have the blasphemy laws amended, has been warned that she will be besieged. On television, religious scholars have disagreed among themselves over the law’s merits. Divisions are also being seen within the government, with powerful figures taking opposing sides. And there has even been global outrage, with Pope Benedict XVI last week calling for Noreen’s freedom.
Noreen’s case has spurred the first genuine debate over some of Pakistans most controversial laws. The original blasphemy law was drawn up by the British, in the Indian Penal Code of 1860, aimed at keeping the peace among the subcontinent’s sometimes fractious diversity of faiths. Not only did Pakistan inherit the laws after partition, but it added to them. In the 1980s, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship introduced a slew of elastically worded clauses, including a death sentence for those deemed to have defiled the sacred name of the Prophet.

Before Zia, there were only two reported cases of blasphemy. Since the death sentence was inserted in 1986, the number has soared to 962 — including 340 members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect, 119 Christians, and 14 Hindus. Close examination of the cases reveals the laws often being invoked to settle personal vendettas, or used by Islamist extremists as cover to persecute religious minorities.

Vague wording allows the blasphemy laws to be used an instrument of political and social coercion, says Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. And they give the state a sectarian character.

No conclusive evidence has been presented against Noreen, say people familiar with the case. The district judge relied on the testimonies of three other women, all of whom bore animus toward her.

Noreen had long been under pressure by fellow farmworkers to convert to Islam, her family says. And the district judge ruled out any possibility of her innocence or mitigating circumstances.
Christians are subject to vicious prejudice in Pakistan, where there beliefs are said to make them “unclean.” Municipalities routinely advertise jobs for cleaners with a note saying they would prefer Christian applicants. And defending their rights is not popular.

When Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, visited Noreen in prison and urged her release, he was branded an apostate by fundamentalist groups. And in the fundamentalist view, apostasy, like blasphemy, is punishable by death.
Liberal lawmaker Sherry Rehman who has called for amendment of the blasphemy laws and removal of the death sentence clause was warned this week that she would be “besieged.” It is a measure of the state’s impotence in the face of extremist groups that such high-profile public figures can be openly threatened for merely advocating human rights, says Hasan, of Human Rights Watch.
Rehman insists that she won’t be cowed by the threats. “I really can’t be coerced into silencing myself like this,” she tells TIME. “It’s my freedom as a legislator to do as I do. If they want to talk, there’s no issue. But to use coercion is unacceptable.” Taseer, a notably outspoken politician, is phlegmatic. “It doesnt bother me,” he tells TIME. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether I’m a Muslim or not?”

Rehman’s reform effort is unlikely to succeed, because few politicians have dared to support it. Indeed, Babar Awan, the Law Minister has vowed to oppose any move against the blasphemy laws. What’s more, the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who had last year suggested the laws should be reviewed after the killing of nine Christians in Punjab, now seems to be distancing himself. “It is not our party policy,” he told a news channel this week, when asked about Rehman’s bill. But Rehman, who spent years fighting laws that discriminate against women, says its mere submission is an important first step: “The first stone has been cast. It’s not a taboo subject anymore to be taken up by legislators.”

More worrying is the fate of Noreen. The Lahore High Court has taken the controversial step of saying that it won’t allow President Asif Ali Zardari to issue a pardon, a move that legal experts have said is unconstitutional. Her family is now hoping that the higher courts will strike down the death sentence, or that she will eventually secure a pardon. And the fear doesn’t end there. While no one has been executed for blasphemy yet, 32 people — including two judges — have been slain by vigilantes. At Friday prayers this week, Yousef Qureshi, a hardline cleric from the Mohabat Khan mosque in Peshawar, offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($5,800) to “those who kill Aasia Bibi.”

Even if pardoned, Rehman notes grimply, Noreen will no longer be able to to live in her community. For her own safety, she will have to be moved — simply for defending her right to choose her own faith.

Source: TIME

2 Comments to “In Pakistan, Christianity Earns a Death Sentence -by Omar Waraich”

  1. Pakistan: religious fanatics issue death sentence for Minorities Minister
    The religious terrorist organization “Lashkar-e-Taiba”, one of the largest in Southern Asia, and other Taliban groups have launched a “fatwa” (an official proclamation) against the Pakistani Minister for Religious Minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti – who happens to be a Catholic. Reliable sources in Pakistan confirmed that the minister is now being targeted by militants. He has become a “legitimate objective” and “may be killed for being an accomplice to the blasphemy.” The proclamation is motivated by Bhatti’s commitment to the revision of the Islamic blasphemy law. An international furor was unleashed when Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was condemned to death by an Islamic court for alleged blasphemy under Muslim religious law. Appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and various governments have yet to be heeded.

    The Minister had already received warnings and threats. The radical organization “Majlis Ahrar-e-Islam”, in recent days had told him to “keep your mouth shut and do not criticize the blasphemy law.” Months ago, the religious leader Ahmed Mian Hammadi had accused him of blasphemy and threatened him with “decapitation”. The position of the Minister in the case of Asia Bibi and his real effort to carry through a draft revision of the law have generated, in a growing climate of intolerance, the new “fatwa” by Taliban terrorist groups.

    Mehdi Hasan, President of the “Commission for Human Rights in Pakistan” commented, “We condemn these irresponsible claims by extremist groups and express solidarity with Minister Bhatti. We are in a situation of increasing polarization and intolerance. But some political parties are trying to exploit the support of Islamic militant groups. It is the government’s responsibility to stop terrorists, but even the government is under pressure.”

    “The social situation is taking a turn for the worse and tension is growing. Pressure from fundamentalist groups becomes stronger and manifestations follow one after another. We are concerned about possible violence on Christian leaders and places of worship,” says a source in the Christian community.

    Radical Islamic groups protested yesterday in Quetta and Lahore, asking for “namuus-e-risalaat” (respect for the Prophet). Preacher Yousaf Qureshi, from the Masjid Mohabaat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, has offered a prize of 500 thousand rupees for the scalp of Asia Bibi, defying the Government to make any move to amend the blasphemy laws. Tomorrow, December 5, another demonstration will take place in Islamabad to put pressure on the political and judicial institutions. On 6 December, the Lahore High Court should rule on the petition that would prevent the President from granting a pardon, and announce the date of the first hearing for the appeal process of Asia Bibi.

    Meanwhile, work on selection proceeds for the Commission, that, appointed by President Zardari and under the leadership of Minister Bhatti, will study appropriate amendments to the blasphemy law. The Commission will include political leaders, Muslim clerics and scholars, and representatives of civil society and will draft a proposal for revisions in order to prevent abuses.
    Source: FIDES

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