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LAHORE: The Supreme Court is due to hear the final appeal against the execution of Asia Bibi, a Christian, accused for blasphemy, on Thursday. Some insist it is not just a fight for one life, but a battle for the nation’s soul as the state walks a razor-sharp line between upholding human rights and appeasing populist hardliners.
This will be the final appeal for Asia Bibi, some six years after she was sentenced to death, accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.
“There is no question that what is at stake is the very soul of the state and Pakistan society: does Pakistan respect the rights of the most vulnerable? Does it defend those rights against spurious allegations even where those allegations involved matters that are sacred to most Pakistanis?” Mustafa Qadri, an expert on human rights in South Asia, told AFP recently.
Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010, despite her advocates maintaining her innocence and insisting the accusers held grudges against her.
The allegations against Bibi date back to… READ MORE
URGENT PRAYER CALL
Date of Call…….
Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016 (from any location using your phone)
Time of call…….
9 p.m. Eastern
8 p.m. Central
7 p.m. Mountain
6 p.m. Pacific
Note: It will be 6 a.m. Thursday, Oct.13 (the date of her trial) in Pakistan when this prayer call begins
Call number and access code are…….
Christian advocacy groups such as CSW and many church leaders are also calling for 24 hour prayer beginning Oct. 12th before her trial begins.
Prayer Points from CSW:
- That Asia would be acquitted
- For her strength and restoration during and after the hearing
- For wisdom and protection for Saiful Malook, her lawyer; and for the judges hearing her case
- For the wider Christian community who may face a backlash whatever the outcome of the appeal
- For an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Pakistan, to maintain calm in the country.
- For justice for others accused of blasphemy, and that the government would urgently amend the blasphemy laws
Join with Voice of the Persecuted in daily prayer for Asia and remember her on Wednesday, October 12th
JORDAN: (Voice of the Persecuted) Many reports are being shared of a gunman who was arrested after killing prominent Jordanian writer, Nahed Hattar outside of Amman court where he was facing charges of inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam over an “offensive” cartoon. On Sunday, Hattar was shot in the head three times as he arrived at the court for a hearing. Hattar’s two brothers and a friend were at the scene, chased and were able to catch the killer and hand him over to the police.
Hattar, a Christian, was arrested on August 13 after posting a cartoon produced by an unknown artist titled, ‘The God of Daesh (Isis)’ on his Facebook account with an Isis militant sitting next to two women and asking God to bring him a drink. Many Jordanian Muslims had found it offensive and against their religion. The Christian writer then removed the cartoon claiming it was not meant to insult Islam and did not infringe God’s divinity in any way”. It was shared to expose how Isis “envisions God and heaven”.
The Guardian reported that the family of Hattar holds Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki responsible when he ordered Nahed’s arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon. His cousin said the prime minister ignited the public against him and created a hostile atmosphere that encouraged violence that led to his murder.
Jordanian government spokesman, Mohammad Momani condemned the killing as a “heinous crime”, but also said, “The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community.” Read the Guardian’s full report.
Update: some have reported that though Hattar came from a Christian family, he had expressed various atheist views throughout his life. We are unable at this time to confirm his religious beliefs. But as one who notified us presumed, we support an end to persecution of all human beings and this crime is no less an outrage, whatever Hattar’s beliefs.
Where are the voices in the Church speaking out? How Muslims in these nations are not held accountable when they mock the faith of Christians, destroy Bibles and claim a follower of Jesus Christ is a blasphemer when revealing the truth that Christ is the Lord and Savior of the world. That it’s unfair to be arrested for sharing a caricature to call attention to the radical ideology of terrorists. That it’s not inciting violence, hate speech or insulting the Islamic faith, but to call out the darkness coming against humanity. Where are the cries for laws to protect Christians in these nations?
Can you imagine living under this threat of this darkness on a daily basis? Blasphemy laws unfairly protect Islam and are used to abuse minorities, particularly Christians. Until these draconian laws are abolished, they will bring more persecution, mob violence and the murder of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Please pray for them as, day by day, they’re coming under increasing attacks without fair trials or protection. They need and covet our prayers. May the Lord give them strength to endure in faith. Please speak out against these human rights abuses. Please share these stories to inform other Christians and encourage them to pray with you. Let’s fight this battle on our knees before the throne as we praise our mighty God.
Oh Father, bend low to hear our combined prayers and petitions for our persecuted family in Christ. Bless and have mercy on these dear ones. Protect them from the schemes of the evil one. May You be glorified by the witness of their steadfast faith.
This Friday, Sept. 30th we will hold another (5th Friday), 24-hour Prayer Call Event. Unite with us in prayer as we lift up our suffering brothers and sisters persecuted for their faith in Jesus. Please share this event with many and encourage them to honor the number one request of those in the Persecuted Church, “PRAY FOR US!”. Call details and printable flyer here.
We are committed to being a VOICE for persecuted Christians to bring them comfort, relief, and encouragement. We have committed to a long-term mission in Nigeria and are helping the persecuted suffering through the asylum process in Thailand. They will not be forgotten!
We want you to know that even in great hardship, they thank God and feel extremely blessed that He has kept His hand on them. They’re so encouraged and thank God for each one of you who have joined this mission through your prayers and support.
Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope.
HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED
Every day, we thank God that He is working through you to care for His children and to further His Kingdom! As you greatly bless others, may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do it without you!
You may also send your gift to:
2740 Third St
P.O. Box 122
Trenton, MI. 48183
If the Lord is placing it on your heart and you are able, please help us to continue the mission in Nigeria. Donations always desperately needed
(Voice of the Persecuted) Muslim radicals, 25,000-strong at the peak of their demonstrations, ended a four-day sit-in at a high-security “red zone” near Pakistan’s federal parliament. On Wednesday, they claimed victory after the government made a deal to not change the country’s notorious blasphemy laws misused against minorities. They assured that no amendments will be made to provision 295-C of the penal code, which states that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.” It was also claimed they will not show leniency to anyone convicted under them. It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. Even unproven allegations can stir up huge mobs and extreme violence as seen in the case of a Christian man and his pregnant wife brutally tortured then thrown into a firey kiln oven. Whole communities violently attacked and burned down for an unverified claim of blasphemy. Revenge attacks as the suicide bombing carried out on Easter at a Lahore park which was meant to target Christians. The radicals have promised future attacks.
Mumtaz Qadri became a hero to fundamentalists after killing Salman Taseer, Punjab’s 26th governor, in 2011. His murder sent shockwaves throughout the country. Trained as an elite police commando, Qadri was assigned to Taseer as his bodyguard. He shot and killed the politician and a year later was sentenced to death. He claimed it was his religious duty to kill Taseer, who had been an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, supported liberal reforms and championed for Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi.
Bibi is a Christian mother of 5 who was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Bibi upholds she is innocent of the charge, but her court appeals have been unsuccessful. Christian Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also murdered for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws. Her family was forced into hiding after receiving death threats. Extremists have promised to kill Asia if she is released from prison and her death sentence not upheld. Even those exonerated of blasphemy charges are at great risk, even murdered by radicals when released.
The extremists erupted in violent protest at the decision to execute the assassin. They are now calling for Asia Bibi’s execution. They blame her for Qadri’s execution and view her death as an eye for an eye.
When Saif-ul-Mulook, a Muslim, took her case his fellow lawyers said, ‘You have hammered the last nail into your coffin.” Mulook was also the special prosecutor in the murder case of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Police have been stationed at his home as a plot to assassinate him had been revealed.
Please contact your Senator or representative and ask them to act immediately.
Voice of the Persecuted letter to elected officials.
We at Voice of the Persecuted condemn the ongoing persecution against Christians in Pakistan. We are extremely concerned for the welfare of Asia Bibi who is being wrongfully held and sentenced to death on false blasphemy charges. Asia’s life hangs in the balance and is in grave danger. A government official recently claimed that security has been increased following intelligence reports that Islamist groups are conspiring to have her killed inside the prison to avenge the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri—an extremist who claimed it was his religious duty to kill Punjab’s 26th governor, Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri is hailed as a hero by a large number of Muslims in Pakistan. Taseer, had been an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, supported liberal reforms and championed for Asia Bibi.
The risk of her being hung for her Christian faith has never been greater. No one should be put to death for their religious beliefs. Please put pressure on the Pakistani government to stop violating her human rights, revoke her death sentence and her immediate release. We ask that you help to protect her from extremists. In the event of her release please help to save her from certain death by assassination. Asia and her family will need to be immediately evacuated and given refuge in a country who can protect her human right to worship freely and live in peace. It’s important to act today before it’s too late!
LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Compliance with an order that only the death sentence can be given to those convicted of insulting Islam’s prophet will further endanger Christians and increase the powers of the Islamic court that issued it, critics said.
While Christians fear that government compliance with the Federal Shariat Court’s (FSC) Dec. 4 order to remove life imprisonment as a punishment for insulting Muhammad could usher in a new era of persecution, some critics say the greater concern is that it could broaden the powers of the controversial court.
Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws calls for either death or life imprisonment for persons convicted of insulting Muhammad. The FSC has given the government a “couple of months” to implement, through parliament, the order to remove life imprisonment as a possible punishment.
The FSC order comes less than three years after assassinations of two government officials silenced most criticism of the blasphemy laws.
While the ruling could further encourage extremists to attack those they believe are insulting Muhammad, the FSC order may have little specific legal impact since judges have tended to issue death penalty sentences for such convictions anyway, according to Yasser Latif Hamdani, who practices law in superior courts.
“This is a guideline that the courts have already followed,” Hamdani told Morning Star News. “The problem is that it has symbolic significance. It opens the door for the Federal Shariat Court to exercise greater influence on the legal system. Will the FSC also rule that insanity is not a defense?”
Hamdani said he hoped that the order would land before the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench, “which may take a more positive and liberal view,” he said.
Attorney Shoaib Salim of the Lahore High Court also expressed hope that it could be reversed.
“The FSC is only empowered to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with sharia [Islamic law] or not,” Salim said. “The ultimate decision rests with the parliament.”
He said it was unlikely that the government would implement an order that would further incite religious hatred and persecution in Pakistani society. The blasphemy laws have been routinely abused to settle personal vendettas as antagonists can easily level false accusations that ruin lives.
Since its establishment in 1980, the FSC has been the subject of criticism and controversy. Created as an Islamization measure by the military regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, and subsequently protected under the controversial 8th Amendment, the FSC has opponents who question its existence and usefulness. Comprising eight Muslim judges, including three required to be Islamic law scholars (Ulema), the court exercises jurisdiction over criminal courts deciding Hudood cases, which involve punishments prescribed by Islamic writings.
Critics say the FSC merely duplicates the functions of superior courts and contravenes the authority of parliament. They allege that the way its judges are appointed and retained is tainted, and that the court does not fully meet criterion for an independent judiciary.
The FSC’s decisions are binding on high courts as well as on subordinate judiciary. Appeals against its decisions lie with the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of three Muslim judges of the Supreme Court and two Islamic scholars appointed by the president.
Misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan has long been debated, but the assassination of two top government officials and a senior judge in the last decade and a half has silenced even the most vocal critics.
Former Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s own police bodyguard gunned him down on Jan. 4, 2011 for calling for a review of the blasphemy laws and giving moral support to a woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. Two months later, on March 2 of that year, Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad; members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility. He had faced threats on his life for voicing opposition to the blasphemy laws.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, former Lord Bishop of Rochester, United Kingdom, and current president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, said the FSC verdict is a cause of concern for Pakistani Christians.
“Everyone knows how the blasphemy laws are misused in this country,” Dr. Nazir-Ali, on a visit to Pakistan, told Morning Star News. “During several of our engagements with the Pakistani government, we have repeatedly asked them to deal with blasphemy cases with utmost care and consideration to ensure that there’s no miscarriage of justice. No blasphemy case should be registered without proper investigation at the highest government level regardless of whether the accused is a Christian or of another faith.”
Islamist Clerics Defiant
Pakistan’s top Islamist clerics, meantime, have not only pushed for greater FSC powers but declared that they will not tolerate any amendments to the blasphemy laws.
A few days after nearly 150 Christian homes were burned to the ground in March by violent Muslim mobs in Lahore’s Joseph Colony over allegations that a Christian youth had insulted Muhammad, top Sunni Islamist clerics led by Ruet-e-Hilal Committee Chairman Mufti Muneebur Rehman recommended that all persons accused of blasphemy should be tried by the FSC.
The clerics also opposed the imposition of penalty for the accusers in such cases, arguing that no punishment existed for falsehood in other cases. Mufti Muneeb also demanded that defamation of sacred religious personalities should be declared a crime under international law.
Punishment for false witness does have some advocates. After much lobbying, in September Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi strove to make the country’s top religious body, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), recommend the death sentence for those making false blasphemy accusations. Ashrafi believes that such a law was necessary as a deterrent.
Hardliners in the CII, however, shot down Ashrafi’s initiative.
“I have been relentlessly protesting the misuse of the blasphemy laws,” Ashrafi said. “This is not only bringing a bad name to Pakistan but also the entire Muslim Ummah [community]. It’s a pity that the other religious leaders failed to understand the importance of a strong deterrent for false accusers. Those making a false accusation needed to face death penalty because the words attributed to the accused were actually uttered by the accuser.”
CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani said a majority of the CII members believed there was no need to amend the blasphemy laws.
“We don’t want to discourage people from coming forward and lodging complaints against blasphemers,” he said. “There’s already a law – Section 194 of the Pakistan Penal Code – which envisages punishments for lodging a false FIR.”
Sheerani, who believes the FSC order removing life in prison for those convicted under Section 295-C was in line with Islamic injunctions, said the FSC was the right forum to decide blasphemy cases.
“Laws relating to Islam should be decided by the FSC,” he said. “Our senior clerics have already recommended that such cases be decided within three months. If the suspect is found innocent, the false accuser can be tried under the relevant section of the PPC [Pakistan Penal Code],” he said.
Napolean Qayyum, a Christian rights activist, said the ruling would usher in a new era of persecution.
“We have seen people taking the law into their own hands and deciding for themselves what the punishment should be,” Qayyum said. “This ruling will only embolden elements who use the blasphemy laws to target the weak and marginalized communities of this country. How many more innocent lives would it take for the government to realize that it needs to do something to bring an end to this victimization?”
Attorney Aneeqa Maria, head of Christian rights group The Voice Society, told Morning Star News that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have no standards for evidence or for proof of intent, even though intent must be shown for a conviction, as well as no procedural safeguards to penalize those who make false allegations.
“They are a constant sword hanging over our heads, and no government has so far been able to stop their blatant misuse,” Maria said. “Everyone knows how these laws are used as a tool for settling personal disputes, and now the FSC has taken this skeleton out of the closet after so many years. I believe this would encourage the accusers to try and get their victims implicated under Section 295-C.”
(Morning Star News) – Police and a banned Islamic extremist group in Lahore, Pakistan are searching for a young Christian accused of blasphemy – with the extremist group calling for his death – after he sought to correct misconceptions about Christianity in a Muslim book, sources said.
Sources close to Adnan Masih, 26, said he believes that if he turns himself in, he will be killed by either the Islamic extremist Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) or the Pakistani judicial system, which makes blasphemy against Islam’s prophet punishable by death. They said Masih denies having written anything against Islam or its prophet, Muhammad, when he scribbled in a Muslim book he found in a glassworks shop where his brother works.
His brother, Irfan Masih, was busy elsewhere that day, Oct. 7, and asked him to fill in for him at the shop. Masih, who has a master’s in English and trained as a pastor at a United Pentecostal seminary, became bored and began going through books in a desk drawer, where he noticed one entitled, “I Asked the Bible Why Korans Were Burnt [in Urdu, ‘Mein ney Bible sey poocha Quran kyun jaley’],” sources said.
A source close to Masih said the evangelist and tutor noticed several false statements about the Bible and about Jesus, which he highlighted with a marker and corrected by answering with verses from the Bible. The next day Masih found a case had been registered against him for blasphemy under the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 295, parts A, B and C – for allegedly outraging religious feelings, defiling the Koran and defaming Muhammad respectively.
The book belonged to a Muslim worker at the shop, Abid Mehmood, who upon seeing the notations went to police and also notified the JuD, a banned Islamic militant organization related to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been designated as a global terrorist group operating in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
The United States has announced a $10 million bounty on JuD chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, but he is supported by Pakistan’s powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and moves about freely in the country.
Masih, married and a father of two young girls, went into hiding after learning that JuD had issued a fatwa calling for his head. A source said he had no idea that “pointing out false references in a book would land him in such big trouble.”
Hafiz Abdul Malik of the JuD told Morning Star News that the group would not tolerate one word against their prophet.
“The police better arrest the blasphemer and hand him over to us on Saturday [Oct. 19],” Malik said last week.
“We will not be responsible for any law-and-order situation in the city if the police fails to keep its assurance. How dare someone use derogatory language against our beloved prophet …
Don’t they know that the Koran orders us to slit the throat of whoever is disrespectful to Allah’s beloved prophet?”
Since last week, JuD extremists have continued to gather at the Township Police Station and the superintendent’s office every evening to clamor for Masih’s arrest.
Mehmood, of Lahore’s Shadbagh area, told Morning Star News that he noticed Masih reading his book when he entered the shop.
“I did not ask Adnan why he was reading my book and started working,” Mehmood said. “The next day [Oct. 8], when I opened the book for reading, I noticed that on several pages Adnan Masih had written abuses and derogatory remarks against our holy prophet with a lead pencil.”
The complainant in the case said that he immediately took the evidence to the Township Police Station and demanded the arrest of Masih. Police detained the shop owner, Mushtaq Masih, who is a Christian.
“The police have taken my employer, Mushtaq Masih, into custody for investigation, but I have told them that he is not at fault,” Mehmood said. “The investigating officer and the station house officer have assured me that Mushtaq Masih is only being detained until they are able to trace and arrest Adnan Masih or his brother Irfan Masih, both of whom are in hiding since the registration of the case.”
Asked why he and the police were seeking Irfan Masih’s arrest when he was not present in the shop when the alleged blasphemy took place, Mehmood said detaining him would pressure his brother to surrender to police.
“Irfan has never been disrespectful to Islam, but he is the brother of a blasphemer and must suffer for his action,” he said.
Mehmood, who registered a First Information Report (No. 675/13) with Township Police against Masih on Oct. 8, said that as part of JuD he joined a large number from the group that besieged the Township Police Station on Oct. 17 to protest the non-arrest of Masih.
“SHO [Station House Officer] Rana Akmal has assured us that he would arrest the blasphemer by Saturday [Oct. 19],” he said last week. “We had planned a protest rally after Friday prayer, but now we will wait until Saturday.”
Deputy Superintendent of Police Asad Muzaffar told Morning Star News that officers were trying to keep tensions under control, and that “Adnan Masih’s arrest is important to prevent violence on other Christians.”
“Right now, it’s not a matter of whether Adnan Masih is guilty or not,” Muzaffar said. “He has been charged under all three sections of the blasphemy law, which is a very serious offense. He must surrender to us so that we can investigate the charges against him.”
Muzaffar said that he had asked local Christian leaders to bring Masih before them to prevent rioting.
“Islamist groups have already started pressuring us, warning of massive protests in the city,” he said. “So far, we have been unable to arrest the accused as he and his family have gone into hiding, but finding them is not impossible.”
Asked why police were keeping Mushtaq Masih in illegal custody when he hasn’t been accused of committing any wrongdoing, Muzaffar said the shop owner was detained for questioning.
“The complainant has not accused his employer of blasphemy,” he said. “He’s our ‘guest’ until we have the main accused in our custody.”
Attorney Shoaib Salim, who practices law in the Lahore High Court, told Morning Star News that police were committing an illegal act by keeping an innocent man in custody.
“The law does not allow detaining a person who is not required in any investigation or case,” Salim said. “The FIR just states that Mushtaq Masih is the owner of the shop. He wasn’t even present there when the alleged incident took place, and neither has the complainant sought his interrogation. The police must release him immediately, or the family should approach the High Court for relief.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are frequently used against religious minorities, with frivolous accusations used to settle personal vendettas. In the minds of some, the statutes also grant license to take more drastic action; on Sept. 14, a Muslim in Karachi, Muhammad Asif, accused a 58-year-old Christian, Boota Masih, of blasphemy as he slit his business rival’s throat, killing him, according to relatives (see Morning Star News, Sept. 19).
The Council for Islamic Ideology, Pakistan’s premier body of Islamic scholars, recently expressed willingness to amend the country’s controversial blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse, but a majority opposed the proposals, saying existing laws were sufficient to deal with misuse.
Allama Tahir Ashrafi, a member of the council, told Morning Star News that he had lobbied hard for amending the laws to stop their misuse.
“I had proposed fixing the same punishment for the person who falsely accuses of blasphemy as the accused,” he said, but Council Chairman Maulana Sherani opposed the proposal. “Maulana Sherani said the Pakistan Penal Code already has sections which deal with sentences for those who misuse any law.”
While many in Pakistan believe that the blasphemy laws are contrary to basic human rights and are widely misused against Christians and Muslims alike, very few have publicly demanded repealing them.
Statute 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings, 295-B forbids defiling the Koran and 295-C forbids defaming Muhammad, but parts A and B require that intent be shown in order to obtain a conviction. Defiling the Koran is punishable by life in prison (25 years in Pakistan), and defaming Muhammad is punishable by death with or without a fine.
Christians make up just 2.45 percent of Pakistan’s population, which is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World. Religiously charged court cases commonly involve clamoring crowds of Muslims and other pressures coming to bear on lawyers and judges. On July 13, a court in Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province sentenced 29-year-old Sajjad Masih to life in prison after Islamist mobs clamored for a conviction for defaming Muhammad, in spite of the complainant retracting the accusation and admitting police pressured him into making it, according to Masih’s attorney (see Morning Star News, July 15).
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to falsely accuse other Christians. Karma Patras, a 56-year-old pastor released on bail in February after his accuser said he was mistaken in filing the complaint (see Morning Star News, Feb. 25), was exonerated in June.
Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), a Christian mother of five, has been sentenced to death after being incarcerated on false charges of blasphemy since November 2010.
Blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a girl whose mental age was determined to be less than 14 years old, were dismissed on Nov. 20, 2012 after a judge ruled that they were baseless (see Morning Star News, Nov. 20, 2012). She has since been relocated to Canada.
Islamist terrorists have exploited the lawless Sinai to perpetrate vicious attacks on Egyptian Christians there, as reported earlier this week in the New York Times. Indeed, throughout Egypt, the Copts continue to be targeted and scapegoated for the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As defenseless and abandoned as Mideast Christians seem today, it is worth remembering their historical roots, and recognizing just how much the plight of Middle East Christians has deteriorated. Over 2,000 years ago, Christianity was born as a religion and spread from Jerusalem to other parts of the Levant, including territories in modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. The Christian faith flourished as one of the major religions in the Middle East until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century.
Despite Muslim domination of the region, Christians comprised an estimated 20% of the Middle East population until the early 20th century. Today, however, Christians make up a mere 2-5% of the Middle East and their numbers are fast dwindling. Writing in the Winter 2001 issue of Middle East Quarterly, scholar Daniel Pipes estimated that Middle East Christians would “likely drop to” half of their numbers “by the year 2020″ because of declining birth rates, and a pattern of “exclusion and persecution” leading to emigration.
The “Arab Spring” has only worsened conditions for the indigenous Christians of the Middle East. Like the Kurds, Middle East Christians are a stateless minority, struggling to survive in the world’s toughest neighborhood. But the Kurds at least have enjoyed partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 and most of them are Sunni Muslim, making it easier for them to survive in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. Christians, on the other hand, are a religious minority that controls no territory and is entirely subject to the whims of their hosts. These host countries – with the exception of Israel – offer a grim future to Middle East Christians. Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Egypt also has the largest Christian population in the Middle East, totaling 8-12 million people. But because Christian Copts make up only about 10-15% of Egypt’s estimated 80 million people, they have for decades lived in fear as second-class citizens, subjected to attacks on churches, villages, homes, and shops; mob killings; and the abduction and forced Islamic conversion of Christian women compelled to marry Muslim men. Such abuse took place under the staunchly secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, but grew much worse under the rule of Mohammed Morsi, the jailed Muslim Brotherhood activist who succeeded Mubarak, and they are now being blamed for Morsi’s ouster.
In Lebanon, Christians represent a bigger portion of the population, so their fate is for now less precarious than that of their Egyptian coreligionists, but their long-term prospects are worrisome. The Christian population is estimated to have dropped from over 50% (according to a 1932 census) to about 40%. Over the last few years, the de facto governing power in Lebanon has become Hezbollah, the radical and heavily-armed Shiite movement sponsored by Iran. With all of the spillover violence and instability produced by the Syrian civil war and Hezbollah’s open involvement in it, and/or the next war that Hezbollah decides to start with Israel, the emigration of Christians out of Lebanon will probably only increase in the coming years, leaving those who stay increasingly vulnerable.
In Syria, 2.5 million Christians comprised about 10% of the population and enjoyed some protection under the secular and often brutal regimes of the Assad dynasty. But as jihadi groups fighting Assad extend their territorial control, the past protection of Christians is often the cause of their current persecution by resentful Sunnis who revile the Assad regime and seek to impose Sharia law wherever they can. Christians have been regularly targeted and killed by rebels, and the sectarian chaos and violence that will likely prevail in Assad’s wake will only increase the number of Christians fleeing Syria.
In Iraq, the bloody aftermath of the 2003 invasion demonstrated how dangerous life can become for a Christian minority when a multicultural society in the Middle East explodes into sectarian violence. By 2008, half of the 800,000 Iraqi Christians were estimated to have left, rendering those remaining even more insecure. In 2010, Salafist extremists attacked a Baghdad church during Sunday Mass, killing or wounding nearly the whole congregation. Such incidents turn any communal gathering into a potential massacre, forcing Christians across the Middle East to ask the ultimate question of faith:
“Am I prepared to die for Christian worship?”
The so-called “Arab Spring” threatens to exacerbate matters in much of the Middle East, as Islamists now either control the government or influence it enough to persecute Christians with impunity. As new Islamist regimes in the Middle East condone religious intolerance and introduce Sharia and blasphemy laws, the long-term trend for Christians in their ancestral lands will only grow bleaker.
The one bright spot is the state of Israel – “the only place in the Middle East [where] Christians are really safe,” according to the Vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, Canon Andrew White. Home to Christianity’s holiest sites and to a colorful array of Christian denominations, Israel has the only growing Christian community in the Middle East.
Because Israel is the only non-Muslim state in all of the Middle East and North Africa, it represents a small victory for religious minorities in the region, and serves as the last protector of freedom and security for Jews, Christians, Bahai, Druze, and others. Without Israel, how much more vulnerable would Christians in the Middle East become?
Shahbaz Bhatti knew death was a risk that came with the role of being the minorities’ minister but he never shirked from criticising the blasphemy laws and calling injustice, what it was.
It is very unfortunate that during his recent visit to the UK Paul Bhatti said Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were not a problem. Bhatti is the brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, the heroic Pakistani minorities’ minister who was tragically murdered by extremists because he dared to criticise Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In an address at the House of Commons last week, Bhatti played down the link between the blasphemy laws and the intense persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
For anyone aware of the situation facing minorities in Pakistan, such a position is astonishing. This is because the blasphemy laws have been instrumental in some of the most upsetting examples of injustice against Christians. Take for example Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who is being dragged through a gruelling appeals process to overturn her death sentence for blasphemy, a process which has already gone on over three years and could take many more before any final decision is handed down from the Pakistani courts.
Most recently there was the case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old with a lower mental age who was falsely accused of blasphemy by an imam. Only a few weeks after the case against her made international headlines, it came to light that the imam, her principal accuser, had in fact concocted the evidence himself. The life of a young girl could have been ended because of his lies.
Yet cases like these are not rare. These are simply the most notorious and the ones that gained international attention. There are many more cases of blasphemy against Christians that never get heard of outside Pakistan. Rimsha was extremely lucky because her case went global and drew worldwide condemnation at the political level. Having been given sanctuary in Canada, she and her family are safe for the time being from Pakistan’s unjust laws. But other Christians are not so lucky. Those who remain in Pakistan get up each day and go about their business knowing that at any time they could be subjected to false accusations of blasphemy by disgruntled Muslim neighbours or colleagues who see an easy way of getting one over them. With the law and the authorities on their side, what have they got to lose?
Every Christian in Pakistan is at the risk of a false blasphemy charge and all that it entails: mob justice, hostile courts, indefinite detention without trial, lengthy prison sentences, or a death sentence. Although no one has been executed so far for blasphemy in Pakistan, the appeals process to have the sentence overturned takes years, in which time the accused languishes behind bars, as much at risk of being killed there as they are outside prison.
Many Christians accused of blasphemy have been forced to spend years behind bars before their case has even gone to trial. Savan Masih, of Badami Bagh, Lahore, is currently in jail awaiting trial for blasphemy. Another accused, Martha Bibi, has fled to Sri Lanka where she is applying for asylum. Zaffar Bhatti, also accused of blasphemy, has been denied the right of representation in the courts after the Rawalpindi Bar passed a resolution stating that no lawyer would defend him.
Then there are Christian villages and colonies that have been rampaged through and torched by extremists, where innocent bystanders have been brutally murdered and homes and businesses callously destroyed. All because of spurious blasphemy allegations. And despite the wanton destruction, the Muslim perpetrators are let off the hook time and time again and in some cases, it is the Christians who are arrested by the authorities for agitation.
Paul Bhatti is either seriously ill-informed or taking a ‘gently, gently’ approach to speaking out on behalf of Pakistan’s beleaguered religious minorities. I’m afraid Pakistan is not the kind of country where that approach works. Nor will it be very effective in raising awareness of the situation outside Pakistan where there are many lobby groups and human rights campaigners all clamouring for the attention and intervention of western governments. A strong and unequivocal voice is needed both within Pakistan, where arrogant Islamists think they have the right to trample all over minorities, and outside Pakistan where the world is so often busy and self-engaged.
In his talk at Parliament last week, Bhatti blamed the persecution against Christians on religious education in schools and the anti-minorities language in textbooks. This is, of course, a factor, but to try and suggest that this is the primary cause of persecution in Pakistan is a serious misinterpretation of the facts. Human rights campaigners at last week’s talk were left scratching their heads and wondering if Bhatti, the current chair of the Pakistani minorities’ alliance, is the man for the job of defending the country’s minorities.
Shahbaz Bhatti knew death was a risk that came with the role of being the minorities’ minister but he never shirked from criticising the blasphemy laws and calling injustice what it was. That same determination is not yet apparent in his brother but Paul Bhatti should have on his mind the lives that were lost already for the cause: Shahbaz Bhatti, Salmaan Taseer, Bishop John Joseph, Naimt Ahmer, Tahir Iqbal and many more. There are mothers who have lost sons, children who were orphaned, wives who are now widows, and homes that have been forever destroyed. Being a Christian in Pakistan is not easy. Therefore, it goes without saying that speaking up for Christians in Pakistan is also not going to be easy. But if no one musters the courage to do it, things are never going to change. Even the Lord himself had to pay a heavy price to tell the truth to a fallen world but eventually enough people listened and things changed; the Rome Empire fell. Paul Bhatti is in the position to speak to those who cannot only listen but also effect real change. But the question is: will he use it?
by Nasir Saeed, Daily Times Pakistan
PAKISTAN: (CT) Pakistan’s Christians appear to have thrown some of their political support to Nawaz Sharif in the May 11 national election, even as they have reason to be wary of his return to power.
Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PMLN, won 124 of the 272 directly elected seats in the lower house of Parliament. In Punjab province, home to more than half of Pakistan’s population and 80 per cent of its Christians, the PMLN won a two-thirds majority in the provincial government.
It is a remarkable comeback for Sharif, who was ousted by a military coup in 1999 and spent seven years’ exile in Saudi Arabia and Great Britain. On June 5, he took office as prime minister, Pakistan’s top executive position, for a third time.
Though Pakistani Christians historically have supported more liberal parties, there is evidence significant numbers backed the PMLN this time. Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz and chief minister of Punjab for the past five years, got the majority of votes from the predominately Christian neighbourhood of Yohannaabad of Lahore, the Punjab capital. Christians are the largest minority in Punjab.
Unlike PMLN campaigns of the 1990s that carried Islamic overtones, the 2013 campaign was dominated by Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortages, relations with India and the United States, and domestic Taliban-sponsored terrorism.
At points during the campaign, Sharif promised his party would give equal rights to minorities, including Christians.
“The situation of Christians may be different this time because (the) Sharif brothers have promised to bring positive changes for minorities,” said Irfan Barkat, a Christian activist who once worked with the National Commission of Justice and Peace.
Barkat said Christian voters may have been further encouraged by the Punjab government’s eventual response to a March riot in the Joseph Colony sector of Lahore. Thousands of Muslims, enraged by the allegations that a Christian man had insulted the Prophet Mohammed, torched about 150 Christian homes, forcing hundreds of families to flee, and beating some of those who remained. The Pakistan Supreme Court accused Lahore police of standing by during the violence and demanded an investigation. It found the Punjab government’s initial response lacking, but the government eventually did offer to help victims rebuild their homes.
“The way they rehabilitated Christian families of Joseph Colony, which was attacked by Muslim protesters in March this year, have changed Christians’ view about Mr. Sharif’s party,” Barkat said.
The PMLN even took the unusual step of thanking minority voters for their support.
Pastor Saleem Inayat, founder and chairman of Samuel Inayat Ministries, joined leaders of other minority religions in a May 9 meeting with Nawaz Sharif, and came away impressed with his devotion to protecting minority rights.
“There is going to be unbelievable positive change for the Christians,” Inayat said.
If so, the PMLN will have to overcome a history that Christians find worrisome. During its time in power in the 1990s, for example, the PMLN included the fundamentalist Islamic group Jamat-e-Islami in its coalition government.
“We have seen PMLN trying to bring Islamic laws in the country in its previous regimes,” said Atif Pagaan, director of Harmony Foundation in Pakistan. Because of its wide victory margin in May, the party will need only a handful of independent members of Parliament to form a government, but some Christians remain wary.
“The majority of Christians are not optimistic about Sharif’s forthcoming government because of their religious approach and close linkages with fundamentalist groups,” said Nadeem Anthony, a Christian lawyer and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Addressing PMLN party members May 27, Sharif said his first option in dealing with domestic terrorism is to talk with the Taliban. During the campaign season, Taliban forces attacked supporters of three more-liberal parties, and claimed responsibility for most of the resulting 1,300 fatalities. The PMLN said little about the violence.
The Taliban, in turn, have close connections with Islamic militant organisations, including Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned terrorist organisation, which has been targeting minority-Muslim Ahmedis and Shias, as well as Christians. The SSP still operates in Punjab province under a new name, Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, which reportedly has struck a bargain with Sharif’s party for some of the PMLN seats in the Punjab provincial government.
The PMLN’s history of presiding over Punjab is marked by several episodes of anti-Christian violence. The village of Shantinagar endured a massive onslaught from Islamic extremists in 1997. In 2009, seven Christians were burned alive in Gojra after accusations flew that Christians had mocked the Quran. Hundreds of Muslims attacked the Christian village of Khokarki in 2011 after a Christian man and his son were accused of blasphemy of Islam. Earlier this year, following the riots in Joseph Colony, an argument over music between some young Christian men and two Muslim clerics quickly engulfed the entire village, including an exchange of gunfire.
And just last month, about 250 Christian families from a Christian village named Chak 31, in southern Punjab, fled their homes when Muslims from a neighboring town marched on Chak 31, angered over rumors that some Christians has insulted Islam.
Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are widely criticised as being abused by Pakistani Muslims trying to settle scores and extort property, but also are popular with ordinary citizens. Nadeen Anthony said Sharif’s election is unlikely to provide Christians much hope the government will curb abuse of the laws.
“The Sharif brothers have had been also very strict on blasphemy laws, which is one of the major causes of Christians’ troubles in Pakistan, especially in the Punjab province,” he said.
Naveed Ghafoor, whose brother was falsely charged with blasphemy in 2009, doesn’t expect Sharif to change his position now.
“If Mr. Nawaz Sharif wanted some kind of changes in blasphemy law, and action against Islamic extremists, he would have made some moves when he was in power last two times,” Ghafoor said. “So it does not matter who comes to empowerment, because the situation of Christians (is) getting (more) difficult day by day.”
The centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, third place in the parliamentary election and Pakistan’s fastest-growing party, made the blasphemy laws a part of their direct pitch to Christians.
“We approached them for support because we feel that they should have their right to worship; they should not be discriminated against,” a PTI spokesman said.
“The law has been abused as far as blasphemy is concerned; it has been used against them,” the spokesman said. The law “was there to protect minorities from abuse, but it has been turned around and used for personal vendettas, and it definitely needs to be modified now to suit the present day polarisation in our society.”
The PTI message appears to have struck a chord. After securing one seat in the national assembly in the previous election, the PTI won 27 in May, just behind the 31 seats held by the greatly diminished, outgoing Pakistan People’s Party.
The PTI earned enough support in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to form a coalition provincial government. Their chief partner in the new government, however, is Jamaat-i-Islami, a conservative Islamic party that will control the provincial education and finance ministries.
Against the complex backdrop of parliamentary government, which can take on different formulations at the federal and provincial levels, some Christians are willing to give Sharif and the PMLN another opportunity to confront extremism.
“The religious-fanatics are responsible for the tense situation of Christians in Pakistan, and this is nothing to do with the government,” said Adgar Pace, director of Pakistan Christian Recording Ministries. “This is big challenge, if Mr. Nawaz Sharif does not take any practical step in favor of Christians to protect them from extremists, the situation could be worse. I personally like Nawaz Sharif, as a good leader with his foreign links that could lead (to a) favorable situation for the Christians.”