Christians are a minority in Pakistan and how we can face the wrath of majority who believe in extreme manners instead of indulging in rationale debates over serious issues like Blasphemy Law and other matters
The brutal killing of the Governor of the Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, Salman Taseer, by one of his personal bodyguards in a hail of bullets for vocally seeking to amend the country’s strict blasphemy laws and appealing for clemency for Asia Bibi, has ignited the need for inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan.
The national television (PTV) declared Salman Taseer a martyr but soon backed away after a reported anonymous threatening phone call at the national hook-up. Same was the case with the leading Christian scholars who even chose better not to condemn the killer.
Viewpoint contacted Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, Bishop of Lahore Alexendar John Malik, Bishop of Rawalpindi Anthony Lobo, Bishop Anthony Rufus, Bishop of Raiwind Samuel Azraiah, Priest Rehmat of Islamabad and Priest Edward of Lahore and shared some questions regarding the backdrop of the murder of Salman Taseer and its future consequences for minorities.
But none of them dared condemn the brutal act of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, one of the personal bodyguards who killed Salman when he was coming out of a restaurant after having lunch with one of his good old days buddies near a super market in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on January 4, 2011.
However, Dr. Kanwal Feroze, "Tamgha-i-Imtiaz" in Literature and President's Medal of Excellence, showed courage to speak on the issue. Here are excerpts of an interview with Dr. Kanwal Feroze, who has specialized in minorities issues and promotes inter- religious peace and harmony since 1969;
Viewpoint: What is the reaction of Christian minority towards the murder of Salman Taseer?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: It would be an open invitation to the wrath of extremists, and ultimately death, to castigate or even condemn the killer of Salman Taseer even within the fore-wall of our houses or with close friends as religious intolerance has reached its pinnacle in Pakistan. But it is a fact it was brutal murder, which has sent a shockwave among minorities, particularly the Christians residing in Pakistan.
Viewpoint: What would be the fate of Asiaya Bibi case after the murder of Salman Taseer?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: None of the blasphemy accused belonging to minorities or whatsoever has ever been convicted after being sentenced to death by lower courts in Pakistan. Most of the accused belonging to minorities after getting bail from High Court and Supreme Court have had sought asylum abroad. We see a similar fate of this case as well.
None of the blasphemy accused belonging to minorities or whatsoever has ever been convicted after being sentenced to death by lower courts in Pakistan. Most of the accused belonging to minorities after getting bail from High Court and Supreme Court have had sought asylum successfully abroad.
It is ironic that those leveling the blasphemy allegations have never been punished after the release of the accused. However, the Council of Islamic Ideology has lately recommended those leveling blasphemy allegation should also be punished under Blasphemy Law if their allegations proved to be wrong.
Viewpoint: What Christianity says about Blasphemy Laws?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: Christianity does not preach disrespect to any other religion or prophets. It teaches tolerance and harmony among various sects. All the prophets are respectable and Christians cannot imagine blasphemy of any of the prophets. Every Christian believed in the respect for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and most of the accused belonging to minorities have been victimized, mainly due to the misuse of the Blasphemy Law.
Viewpoint: Is the existing blasphemy law aimed at victimizing minorities in Pakistan?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: Actual problem lies with the registration of case against minorities under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code. Most of the victims belonging to minorities hailed from backward rural areas who were got booked by local landlords and influential peoples for settling their personal scores. Christians are not only victims of blasphemy laws but the local Muslims are also falling victim. However, proper investigations should be carried out before the registration of the case.
It would be just like inviting trouble for oneself in the current scenario in Pakistan. We are a minority in Pakistan and how we can face the wrath of majority who believe in extreme manners instead of indulging in rationale debates over serious issues like Blasphemy Law and other matters. Religious extremism has gained so much roots that now it is really threatening the very fabric of Pakistani society.
Viewpoint: Do you believe in tolerance philosophy?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: We need to be more pragmatic and objective in our approach. Extremists are present in each society but we need to start the process of dialogue with open minds and hearts. We should devise ways and means for a peaceful existence.
Viewpoint: Do you think Salman Taseer is a martyr?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: It would be tantamount to putting one’s own and family members’ lives at risk by openly rebuking the killer of Salman Taseer. The current religiously hostile environment in Pakistan was not suitable for issuing statements about such sensitive matters, neither in private nor in public, for us members of a minority.
It was a gruesome murder and not martyrdom. Salman Taseer had just issued a couple of statements about the release Asia Bibi, a convicted accused for blasphemy. Salman Taseer’s murder has been labellized and after investigation the actual reasons would come to the fore. A lot of people are associating the killing of Salman Taseer for jumping into the defence of a convicted blasphemy accused but actually he fell victim to his own follies. Salman Taseer had issued a couple of statements regarding Asia Bibi case and wasn’t campaigning as such to get the case quashed against her.
Viewpoint: What should religious clergy do so that peace and tolerance permeates in Pakistani society?
Dr. Kanwal Feroze: The religious clergy should come forward and start a debate on contentious issues. We have inter-faith dialogue forums. We need to understand each other. Our religious scholars should preach peace and harmony for co-existence. We cannot afford extremism in Pakistan.
Here are some key facts about blasphemy laws in Pakistan;
- In 1927, the British colonial rulers of the sub-continent made it a criminal offence to commit “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief”. The law did not discriminate between religions.
- The law was retained when Pakistan gained independence in 1947 under the rule of the country’s moderate founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah
- Pakistan’s late military ruler Mohammed Ziaul Haq, who was in power for 11 years from 1977, made several additions to its blasphemy laws, including life imprisonment for those defiling or desecrating the Holy Quran
- In 1984, followers of the minority Ahmadi sect were banned from calling themselves Muslims, punishable with three years in jail
- The death penalty for anyone found guilty of defaming Islam was introduced in 1986
- Ten blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court in the 58 years between 1927 and 1985, but since then more than 4,000 cases have been handled
- A Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to hang in Punjab last November after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) following a row with Muslim women in her village near District Nankana Sahib
- Lawmaker Sherry Rehman from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party sparked fury later that month when she lodged a Private Member’s Bill, seeking to abolish the death penalty and clarify the law on blasphemy
- On December 30, 2010, the PPP-led government announced it had no intention of amending the blasphemy law
- On December 31, 2010, businesses went on strike across Pakistan in protest over moves to amend the law despite international controversy over Bibi’s death sentence
- Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Most of those given the death penalty have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal
Ghulam Haider is Pakistani journalist and development practiotner. He has worked for ten years in Pakistan's leading newspers (Daily The News and Daily The Nation). Currently he is associated with development sector.