Pakistan: Unsafe For Christians

Tahir Iqbal was a Christian convert from Islam. He had suffered from paralysis. The lower part of his body had been paralysed rendering him invalid. He could not walk. He could not even stand. He used a wheel chair. He was an engine mechanic in the Pakistan Air Force. His conversion to Christianity had annoyed Muslims. He lived in the southern part of Lahore close to a mosque. The Muslim cleric in charge of that mosque finally decided to teach him a lesson. He got a case of blasphemy registered against him on 7 December 1990, alleging that “when he recites Azaan (call for prayer) early in the morning in the mosque, Tahir Iqbal feels infuriated and starts abusing Prophet Mohammed at the top of his voice, imparts anti-Islamic education to children who come to him for tuition, has defiled Holy Quran by underlining with green marker, and thus has seriously injured our religious feelings.”

He was arrested by the police on blasphemy charges and that�s all. He was doomed. Despite his physical inability, he was not bailed out. As earlier stated, justice has been subjected to sectarian affiliations. A very crude example may be cited of Tahir Iqbal. The sessions judge who dismissed his bail application on 7 July 1991, passed the following order:

“Learned counsel for the petitioner has conceded before me that the petitioner has converted as Christian. With this admission on the part of petitioner�s counsel there is no need to probe further into the allegations as contained in the FIR [first information report] because learned DDA [the title of the prosecuting attorney] has disclosed that charge has already been framed and the accused is facing trial. Since conversion from Islam to Christianity is in itself a cognizable offence involving serious implication, I do not consider the petitioner entitled to the concession of bail at this stage.”

Though it is needless to comment, it may be mentioned that no law in Pakistan has yet been framed which makes conversion from Islam to Christianity a cognizable offence. The case was fixed for recording of prosecution evidence on 21 July 1992 before the Sessions Court. When I, as the defence lawyer, appeared in the court, I was informed by the State counsel that the accused had died in the jail the previous night. Tahir Iqbal was poisoned to death in jail under a conspiracy about which he had informed all authorities concerned beforehand. He was killed because he had embraced Christianity.

Flee to Asylum

Chand Barkat, 28, a bangle stall holder in Mangle Bazaar, Karachi, was charged with blasphemy by a co-bangle vendor because of professional jealousy. Arif Hussain used to sit beside him for selling bangles in the bazaar. He did not tolerate women going to Chand Barkat, a Christian, for buying bangles. One day Arif warned him to quit that place, as otherwise he would teach him a lesson. Chand Barkat did not leave the place. Arif involved Chand Barkat in a case of blasphemy on 8 October 1991, alleging that he used derogatory language against Prophet Mohammed and his mother. He was charged under section 295-C [of the Pakistan Penal Code]. Chand Barkat was acquitted by the Sessions Court for want of evidence.

Gull Masih of Faisalabad was charged under section 295-C for using sacrilegious language about the Prophet and his wives on 10 December 1991. The complainant, Sajjad Hussain, had a quarrel with him over repair of a street water tap. Out of this quarrel had emanated the blasphemy case. Gull Masih was tried under the blasphemy law and sentenced to death by the Sessions Court, Sargodha, on 2 November 1992. This death sentence created a commotion. Human rights organisations and the Church agitated against the death sentence. We filed a criminal appeal in the High Court against the judgment of the sessions judge. Gull Masih was bailed out neither by the Sessions Court or by the High Court. I moved an application for an early hearing in the High Court but it took two years for the final hearing. The appeal was heard by the Division Bench of the Lahore High Court, which held that it was a case of no evidence, thus set aside the death sentence and acquitted Gull Masih. It became difficult for Gull Masih to come out of jail as religious fundamentalists had warned of dire consequences. He had to be kept under tight security. Later, in order to save his life, arrangements were made for his exit quietly. He is now in Germany on asylum.

Naimat Ahmar 43, a Christian teacher, a poet and writer of Faisalabad, was butchered by Farooq Ahmad, a young member of a militant religious group (ASSP) on the office premises of the District Education Officer in Faisalabad at 10 a.m. while on duty. The religious zealot killed him because the deceased had reportedly used highly insulting remarks against Islam and Prophet Mohammed. No case of blasphemy was registered against the deceased. He was not tried by any court. The young religious extremist, as briefed by his organisation, took the law into his own hands and killed the poet, writer and teacher, leaving behind a widow and four children. The killer was charged with murder. He made a confession. He was garlanded in jail by religious clerics. The statement of the killer was published in the press that by killing a blasphemer he had won heaven.

The trial court sentenced him to 14 years imprisonment. His appeal to set aside the sentence is pending in the High Court, and I am representing the complainant who is the younger brother of the deceased.

Murders of Accused and Judge

A minor, Salamat Masih, 12 years old, along with Manzoor Masih, 37, and Rehamat Masih, 42, of Gujranwala were charged with writing derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed on the wall of the mosque of the village where they lived. All the three were in fact illiterate and did not know how to write. The case of the minor became a high-profile case in the world media.

We got the case transferred to Lahore through the High Court because each time we went to the Sessions Court in Gujranwala, religious extremists would gather in front of the courtroom with banners urging immediate execution of the alleged blasphemers. They used to pose threats to the lawyers coming from Lahore, and none of the local lawyers dared to defend the accused. The case was later heard by the sessions judge of Lahore. The court, on our request, provided police guards to escort the accused and their lawyer from his office to court and back to his office. On 5 June 1994 the three accused were brought back by the police guards to my office, and after staying for about half an hour they left for their place of hibernation. They had hardly crossed about 500 yards away from my office when they were attacked by religious militants armed with guns. Manzoor Masih died on the spot while the other two accused and their escort, John Joseph, sustained grievous injuries. The murder of Manzoor Masih increased the sense of insecurity among Christians. There was countrywide agitation by the Christians demanding repeal of the blasphemy law and security to their lives in the country.

The Sessions Court of Lahore convicted the remaining two accused and passed death sentence against them. The death sentence against the minor attracted the attention of human rights activists over the world. The High Court, however, while adjudicating their appeal against conviction, acquitted them, declaring that it was a case of no evidence. They had to flee the country to save their lives. They are now also living in Germany on asylum. One of the senior judges of the Division Bench who acquitted the two Christians was murdered by a religious extremist on that very account.

Bantu Masih, 80, and Mukhtar Masih, 50, were arrested on the allegation of committing blasphemy. Both died under police custody. Bantu Masih was stabbed by a fundamentalist in the presence of policemen. He later succumbed to his injuries whereas Mukhtar Masih was tortured to death at the police station. There are many other cases of like nature against Christians, Muslims and Ahmadis. The plight of Ahmadis is much worse. The record shows that such cases were framed maliciously for settling personal scores or for religious persecution. The Christians are demanding repeal of the amended provisions of the law on blasphemy, but the Muslim fundamentalists are threatening that in case the law is repealed or changed they would overthrow the government. They are also using threatening language against the non-Muslim citizens among whom a sense of insecurity is growing fast.

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