Pakistan's 'Blaspheming' Christians: Suicidal, Insane or Merely Framed?

Another Pakistani Christian targeted story, another news peg to examine the status of Pakistan’s alarmingly victimized Christian minority.


This time, the story has an ignominious, historic first. For the first time in Pakistan’s 63 year history, a court in Pakistan’s most populated Punjab province has sentenced a Christian woman to death for blasphemy.


Accounts of what exactly happened in Asia Bibi’s case vary, but only slightly.


Some local news reports say Asia Bibi had a row with her fellow village women about her faith, some say the Christian woman was being forced to convert to Islam and resisted the pressure. Her husband says the altercation started when her fellow farmworkers refused to give her access to the village well.


Amid mounting international media coverage, Asia Bibi’s family says they will appeal the verdict.


I’ve covered so many Pakistani Christian victimization stories, I see a pattern here.


Chances are, Asia Bibi will not be executed for blasphemy. This is getting so much international attention, the government will somehow squelch this – you can’t have Pakistani Christians executed when the government is soaking up billions of dollars of international aid, especially when most of the money comes from Pakistan’s most generous, but most detested donor: the USA.


Meanwhile, reporters like me, are churning out our latest victimized Pakistani Christian story.


These days, when I’m on a tight deadline, I merely "Google up" my old stories and cut-paste what we in the business call the “background” or “context” paragraphs – or “grafs”.


Before doing that though, I call up my experts to find out if there have been any reforms in the country’s infamous blasphemy law passed in the 1980s during the height of Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization process. For nearly three decades, human rights activists have been calling for a repeal since they maintain that the law is exploited by Islamist extremists or those harbouring personal grudges.


Invariably, there are a few cosmetic modifications, but no substantive changes.


When former Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power, there was some talk of the good, allegedly whisky-drinking military chief implementing “procedural changes” to the blasphemy law.


So while the law stipulates that the police can arrest a person accused of blasphemy – an offense punishable by death - based solely on the word of a Muslim accuser without an investigation, Musharraf suggested that blasphemy claims should initially be referred to a senior civil servant, who would then investigate the case before ordering an arrest.


But then nothing came of that for the usual reasons.


Musharraf’s backers, the hardline Islamic groups and parties, kicked up a storm and so the good, allegedly whisky-drinking general backed down.


Before that, Benazir Bhutto, the new goddess of the current government, had two stabs as prime minister. Bhutto and Zia were not chums, far from it – it was Zia, after all, who ordered her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death.


But she never had the political muscle to repeal or reform the reviled Zia’s most shameful legacy to the nation.


Neither did former PM Nawaz Sharif, whose home-state – the Punjab – sees some of the worst discrimination and violence against the Christian minority.


Some background musings and notes that I never manage to squeeze in news stories, but can do so here since I don’t have an editor breathing “word-limit” down my back:


The telltale names that tell a thousand untold tales: The latest Pakistani Christian victim, Asia Bibi, is a mother of two or five, the accounts vary.


What does not change though, is Asia Bibi’s husband’s name: Ashiq Masih. Note that surname. Masih is a typically Pakistani Christian name.


A few months ago, in the military heartland of Rawalpindi, it was Arshad Masih’s turn. According to Pakistani Christian groups, the young driver was burned to death for refusing to convert to Islam. His wife, according to local Christian groups, was raped by police officers. In a country where even the ruling elite families do not always know who killed their fathers, brothers, uncles, wives or mothers, don’t expect this case to be solved.


To get back to the Masih name. That’s a surname on a resume that will not get you many high-end jobs in Pakistan today.


Many of Pakistan Christians were low-caste Hindus who converted centuries ago to escape the thriving caste inequalities of Hinduism. In a country where the official religion expounds the absolute equality of all Muslims in the eyes of God, there’s a subtle, but keen awareness of past caste.


Pakistani Christians have made huge contributions in the fields of education and health. Following the 1947 creation of Pakistan, Christians who served in the former colonial British Army joined the Pakistani military and served bravely in the country’s early wars.


But those were the good old days when Pakistani founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s guarantee of equal rights for all religious groups still held weight. For the most, Pakistani Christians today are an impoverished and poorly paid lot.


Today, there are sizeable Pakistani Christian immigrant communities in the UK and North America. Figures of Christian immigrants from the Indian subcontinent are hard to arrive at since census figures note immigrants by nationality, not religion.


In academic and policy circles, the Pakistani Christian immigrant group - like the Indian Christian diaspora - remain hidden due to their comparatively small numbers (between 2 to 4 percent of national populations) and their lack of exotic appeal for most Western scholars.


So it’s hard to say if Pakistani Christians are fleeing persecution for the West or merely pursuing better living standards.


What’s for sure though, is life is getting tougher for Pakistan’s Christians. Once again, I have no figures to back me up – they don’t exist – but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence.


A Pakistani friend, a Muslim, tells me her sister-in-law is – or rather was – Christian. But the family never mentions it and the children have never been told, nor will they be – for their own well being.


‘But what about the grandparents,’ I asked. ‘Surely the kids would recognize a Christian grandmother and grandfather?’


“You’re talking about Pakistani Christians, not Indian Christians,” my friend replied, whatever that meant. “If you’re a Pakistani Christian these days, you don’t wear your minority religion on your sleeve.”


On paper though, things have improved.


Since Nov. 2008, Pakistan has had a Federal Minister for Minorities. The post has been held by prominent minority rights advocate, Shahbaz Bhatti, who has long been a go-to source for journalists covering this issue.


But now there are moves to dissolve the ministry at the federal level and devolve power at the provincial level. Not surprisingly, not everyone’s happy with this proposal.


It’s one of the minutiae of this issue that will be overlooked by the international press simply because we never have enough time or space to get into it. As will the case of Asia Bibi, if and when her sentence gets commuted.


But one word of warning if we shift our attention from this story: while no one in Pakistan has ever been executed under the blasphemy law, at least 10 people have been murdered before the completion of their trials.


The last time I remember it was two brothers in Faisalabad, the second largest city in Punjab, who were shot dead right outside the court.


The two brothers were charged with printing a pamphlet criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.


None of my Pakistani Muslim friends believed a Pakistani Christian would dare print and take credit for derogatory comments against the Prophet – unless they were insane or suicidal or both.


But we never did uncover the truth. The two brothers were dead long before we could establish if they were suicidal, insane or merely framed.


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I guess that to get the loans from creditors you should have a firm reason. But, once I've received a car loan, because I wanted to buy a bike.
Dear Leela, I really salute for the awareness, what actually happening with Pakistani Christians and once again the Asia Bibi case provoked the thoughts why the Christian are under sage?? As the world knows that a poor village women cant say or do to be accused of Blasphemy, but just on the personal grounds some of our Muslim brothers take advantage of the law which is than obviously get support from the whole country, and thats how christians are treated as they dont belong to Pakistan which is hurting the most. In all the walks of life christians are steping forward for development of Pakistan since it was formed and even, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s assurs there will equal rights for all the religions but yet we still waiting for that Dawn. Their may be some politics involved to divert the attention of Pakistanis for what actually happening in Pakistan which the citizens have to think but people see only what is on the canvas and actualluy they dont want to see what is happening behind the scene. I hope, wish & pray for Asia Bibi, may God help her and take her out of this satualtion and give us eyes to see, ears to hear, mind to think........ and give freedom of thought to work this matter out as one nation. Leela your studies and views are really appreciated keep it up.
Thank you for writing this. What you are pointing out is very important and horribly under-reported. I will also point it out to the folks at the Get Religion ( blog and maybe other religion reporters will pick it up.
Dear Leela, Thank you so much for this report. It is time for the world community/leaders step in help the persecuted minorities of the world, especially in Pakistan. During the first century when Rome thrown Christians to the lions, there was a saying, "too many Christians and too few lions". Today, in countries like Pakistan, too many lions and too few Christians, they are easily devoured. I sincerely hope your article will make some impact in getting this news in to the attention of the world/their leaders. What is done to Christians in Pakistan is unbearable. They have no help. Many are killed by the fanatics by taking the law in to their own hands, and others are persecuted and destroyed when no one to watch. Anything that you can do for Asia Bibi and her family will be deeply appreciated. God will honor you for that. If possible, I would love to receive a response for this comment from you if that's possible. Sincerely, P. Joseph Raju Wayne State University Detroit, MI 48313 313-577-8298

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