Life-or-Death Blasphemy Drama in Pakistan
But did Asia Bibi even say what they say she said? And what does the future hold for the country’s oppressed Christians?
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly will pardon a woman who was sentenced to death for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed.
The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province told CNN today that Zardari has “made it clear that she’s not going to be a victim of this law.”
Gov. Salman Taseer was referring to Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been jailed since June 2009 on charges of violating Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law.
The case has been drawing global attention since Bibi was sentenced to death last month. At the end of his general audience at the Vatican Nov. 17, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the plight of Pakistani Christians, mentioning Bibi specifically.
“Today I particularly express my spiritual closeness to Mrs. Asia Bibi and her family, asking that she be given full liberty as soon as possible,” Benedict stated. “As well, I pray for those who find themselves in similar situations, so that their human dignity and fundamental rights be fully respected.”
Bibi filed an appeal with Pakistan’s High Court the same day Benedict spoke.
“If the High Court suspends the sentence and gives her bail, then that is fine, Taseer said Dec. 6. “We’ll see that, and if that doesn’t happen, then the president will pardon her.”
Islamist groups in Pakistan staged widespread demonstrations the last week of November that made the federal government put on hold any plans it may have had for clemency. Some Islamic scholars even issued an apostasy decree against Taseer, who had forwarded a clemency petition on behalf of Bibi to President Zardari.
“Everyone here is afraid to take steps to end the abuse of this draconian law,” said Archbishop Lawrence Saldana of Lahore, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.
“We have bold people who have spoken out against the blasphemy law, and now they are also being targeted,” said Archbishop Saldana. “As a result, many are afraid and feel insecure.”
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spent four days in Pakistan in late November and met with Zardari. He said the president may not have the political strength needed to abolish the anti-blasphemy law, but he has promised to try to revise the law.
Zardari is the widower of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
Shabhaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, confirmed Nov. 22 from his office in Islamabad: “We are making all the efforts to get her released and present a report to the president after studying the case.”
Bhatti, himself a Christian, added that family members of the woman had met him on Nov. 21 and that hers was “a clear case of false allegation” of blasphemy.
Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission that had been documenting blasphemy-law abuses systematically, explained that the charge against Bibi was “yet another instance of a Christian being charged with a dreadful blasphemy case to settle even petty quarrels.”
In this case, the quarrel was with Bibi’s Muslim neighbor over the flow of drainwater from their houses in the Punjab village of Itanwalli. Jacob said the dispute continued in the fruit field where they worked together, and the Muslim woman verbally abused the “untouchable” Christian woman for using the common glass provided to the workers to drink water.
“The blasphemy charge was brought against her for standing up to the taunts,” Jacob pointed out. The Muslim cleric who filed the charge and got Bibi arrested, Jacob added, had never even met Bibi.
The Catholic Commission has repeatedly said the controversial law is often misused against Christians and others to settle property and personal disputes.
The law makes insulting the Quran an offense punishable by life imprisonment, while being found guilty of insulting the prophet Mohammed brings an automatic death sentence.
That statute reads, in part: “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 and shall also be liable to fine.”
“Not a single conviction has been upheld by higher courts,” said Archbishop Saldana, though at least 1,035 people have been charged. “But the very moment one is accused of blasphemy, his life is under danger.”
On Dec. 3, an Islamic cleric offered 500,000 rupees ($5,855) to anyone who would assassinate Bibi.
The Catholic Commission has put together a list of three dozen Christians and Muslims killed in an “extra-judicial manner,” even during the trial of the cases or after release following blasphemy charges brought against them. Among them:
Samuel Masih, a Catholic, died at the hospital on May 28, 2004, five days after he was hit with a blunt object by a policeman guarding him in the hospital. Masih was attacked while he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. The unrepentant policeman later told investigators that it was his “duty” as a Muslim to kill an “infidel.”
In September 2009, 19-year-old Fanish Masih was tortured to death within 24 hours after he was brought to jail on a blasphemy charge. Jail officials said his death was a suicide.
In July 2010, two young Christian pastors, Rashid Emmanuel and Majid Masih, were being led out of the trial court in Faisalabad in chains. Unidentified gunmen fired on them, killing the two and injuring the police officer.
“Masih” means “Christian” and is a common surname for dalit (lower-class) Christians.
Christians account for only 2% of Pakistan’s 170 million people — 97% of which are Muslim.
However, amid the gloom, Archbishop Saldana noted a growing “civic awareness” in Pakistan about the blatant abuse of the blasphemy law. Newspapers and television stations are having frank discussions on the need to amend it in the wake of the Bibi case.
A member of the National Assembly has even brought a private bill to amend the blasphemy law to prevent abuse and mitigate the maximum punishment.
“But the fundamentalist forces hold so much influence that ordinary people are swayed by them,” Archbishop Saldana said.
Jacob added that several unsuccessful attempts have been made by political leaders to repeal or amend the mandatory death sentence that was introduced by the regime of Gen. Zia-ul Haq in 1986.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who captured power in a bloodless coup in 1999, made a solemn pledge to amend the law before a 2000 Good Friday gathering. But he too had to beat a hasty retreat as Islamic right-wing groups threatened massive agitation against the move.
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.