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.

Why Do We Need Religion?

Why religion? In the face of pogroms and pedophiles, crusades and coverups, why indeed?

Religious Americans have answered the question variously. Worship is one answer. Millions gather each week to acknowledge their higher power. The chance to experience community is another. Healthy congregations are more than civic clubs. They are surrogate families. The opportunity to serve others also comes to mind. Americans feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless largely through religious organizations. Yet as important as community, worship and service are, I am convinced that religion’s greatest contribution to society is even greater.

Religion makes us want to live.

Viktor Frankl’s revealing research in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz led him to a startling conclusion. It was not the youngest, strongest or even smartest inmates who tended to survive. It was those who had found meaning in their lives. People, it turns out, need a reason to live.

For Frankl, that meaning wasn’t necessarily religious — although one could argue that anything that deals with a person’s deepest concerns is in a sense “spiritual.” What Frankl was talking about could be found in deeds — in the handful of individuals who shared their meager rations with others and went about encouraging their fellow prisoners. But meaning could also be found in attitudes — particularly in the ability to face suffering with dignity and grace. As Frankl expressed it: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

A building block

Man’s search for meaning — whether in a Broadway penthouse or the darkest corner of hell — is the most basic building block of a successful life. Without a sense of purpose, many people will simply shrivel up and die, whether figuratively or, in some cases, literally.

I suspect that in postmodern America, the need for meaning is as great as ever. While our ancestors were too busy fighting off starvation to worry about such things as self-actualization, today’s Americans live lives of relative ease. Higher education, a shorter work week and regular vacations have enriched our lives but have also provided abundant opportunity to consider whether our lives have meaning and purpose. The result isn’t all that encouraging. Millions suffer from depression. Millions more escape their lives through drugs and alcohol. Far too many give up the struggle altogether and commit suicide.

Alas, many of us have discovered purpose for our lives through religion. Inside America’s churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and ashrams, we wrestle with the great questions of life. And with due respect to my atheist and left-leaning friends, most of those questions are not amenable to the scientific method.

Why are we here?

What does it all mean?

How should we then live?

These are the things that matter most. Not whether Pluto is a real planet or the atomic weight of carbon is 12 or 13. Even Nietzsche recognized that if one can answer the why of life, he can cope with most any how.

Frankl came away from Auschwitz convinced that there are two basic types of people: decent ones and indecent ones. Some are stronger in their disposition than others, of course, but basically we are decent or indecent. Here’s the interesting thing. Decency and indecency do not fall along national or political lines. There were decent Nazi guards just as there were indecent inmates.

Living decent lives

The same is true of our congregations. While we teach justice, forgiveness and love of neighbor, no doubt, there are indecent souls among us. Even indecent congregations. Not all religion is good, and no person is sicker than a person who is sick on religion. Don’t just think of Osama bin Laden here. I’m also talking about the fearful, guilt-racked, shell of a human being that can result from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Good religion, as the great humanitarian and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer put it, is always “life-affirming.”

Here’s the point: I think religion makes it easier to be decent. The positive core values, mutual accountability and constant striving for self-improvement help one to be a better person. And I want to be a better person. Not because I’m afraid of God. Because I’m grateful for another trip around the sun and, like a good house guest, want to leave this place in better shape than I found it.

There is a lesson here for America’s clergy: Keep your eye on the ball. It’s not so much about this doctrine or that, Mass or the Lord’s Supper or even Ramadan or Yom Kippur. It’s about purpose, meaning and whether I ought to get out of bed in the morning.