South Asia for Human Rights (SAHR) calls for the Government of Pakistan to repeal its laws relating to blasphemy which have, since amendments, been misused by violent religious extremists to commit grave acts of violence against others and to spread religious intolerance. The blasphemy law has also been used to settle personal scores. The urgent need for law reform has been highlighted by the recent deadly attacks on a Christian community in Punjab, Pakistan, whose members were accused of desecrating the Qur’an. Members of a banned Islamist group, Sipah-i-Sahaba, took the law into their own hands and it is reported that policemen present did not try to control the mob and protect the citizens.
This violence was precipitated by an event at a wedding in the village of Gojra on 24 July 2009, when a few Muslims accused three Christians of tearing paper with Quranic verses. Muslim and Christian community leaders stepped in to resolve this conflict and requested that the accused apologize. However, on 30 July, the mosques of Gojra and nearby villages began spreading the allegation of Christians desecrating the Quran, inciting attack on Christians. That evening, a mob of about 3,000 people descended on Gojra, and demanded that those accused of desecrating the Quran be handed over to them. Out of a fear for their own safety the Christians ran away while the mob looted property and burned Christians’ houses. As the rumour of this blasphemy proliferated, the hostility towards Christians escalated in the district.
On the morning of 1st August, the local Muslim prayer leaders led a procession against the alleged desecration and approached the Christian colony. In the afternoon, the mob, led by some armed and masked men, attacked the colony and set fire to 68 houses. Six Christians, including four women and one child, were burnt alive, Mr. Hameed Masih, one of the accused, was shot, the residents’ belongings (cash, gold jewellery, T.V., air conditioning unit, computer, etc.) were taken and two churches were ransacked. The policemen present did not try to control the mob.
Indeed, in many recorded cases of violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, police and local authorities have failed to act effectively despite prior warning of communal tensions. Rather it is the victim of false allegations of blasphemy, often on the word of just one witness, that faces punishment.
The Blasphemy Laws, especially Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, have been used and misused to spread fear and terror as a tool to be used against any kind of opponent. Those who have worked to overturn false charges of blasphemy have themselves become the target of violence. A number of lawyers and journalists have been harassed for defending people accused of blasphemy and campaigning against the Blasphemy Laws. The Blasphemy Laws are not only a convenient provision for the religious extremists to eliminate their enemies and intimidate civilians, but also for criminals to legitimize their violence.
According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, 960 individuals have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan since 1986. In the short period between May 2005 and February 2006 at least 7 churches, a college of the Christian community, a place of worship of Ahmadis, a Temple of Hindus and 3 hospitals of the Christian community were destroyed in various provinces and cities; a Hindu couple, accused of blasphemy, lost their property; 10 persons belonging to religious minorities were killed, 27 individuals were booked under blasphemy laws; and hundreds were harassed and injured by fanatics in different incidents. The attack on Christians of Gojra happened within a month of attacks on Christians in Kasur district where about one hundred houses were damaged. On 11 September, a church in Sambrial, Sialkot was burned down as another Christian was charged with blasphemy. During the last year there has been highest increase of threats against religious minorities in Pakistan and Minority Rights Group International, a London-based watchdog organization, ranks Pakistan as the world’s sixth most dangerous country for minorities.
We respectfully ask you to further investigate and address two points: firstly the violent persecution of this Christian community in the Punjab in July 2009, and the prosecution of the perpetrators of the violent crimes committed against its members, and secondly to join us in calling for the urgent repeal of Blasphemy Laws on the grounds that they are used to target the vulnerable apart from condoning violence and repression.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights
Co Chair, SAHR
September 16, 2009