PAKISTAN: Political expediency of the government is putting the lives of religious minorities at stake

Former President of National Students Federation

Former President of National Students Federation

KNOWLEDGE                              STRUGGLE                                   VICTORY

I am deeply concerned about the uncontrolled violence against religious minorities in various districts of Punjab province, instigated by fundamentalist Muslim groups and religious leaders who illegally use mosque loud speakers to provoke Muslim folks to attack the settlements of religious minorities. The situation has dramatically worsened after the formation of the provincial government of the PML-N, which has a record of intolerant policies against Christians and Ahmedis in particular. The continuous persecution, thriving on the reluctance of the federal government to provide minorities protection and repeal the notorious blasphemy laws, is putting the lives of many at stake.

 

One month after the Gojra tragedy, another case of collective violence took place on September 11 in the village of Jethki, Sambrial tehsil of Sialkot district, where a mob armed with bricks, stones and batons gathered outside the Kalwari Church after the Juma prayer (Friday noon prayer) and attacked Christian visitors, causing serious injuries to a senior pastor, Dilshad. The mob ransacked the church and set it ablaze along with two neighboring houses that belong to Christians by pouring petrol and kerosene oil on the buildings.

The mob was answering to their religious leaders’ call to “teach Christians a lesson”, after the clerics used the loud speakers to accuse five Christian boys of desecrating the Holy Quran and committing blasphemy. The allegation is nevertheless highly suspicious — according to credible sources, the case originated from a harassment complaint reported by a Muslim girl against a Christian boy, but was exploited by Muslim clerics who inflated it into a case of blasphemy.

This latest incident is the fourth of its kind within the last three months and highlights the alarming frequency with which the blasphemy law is blatantly misused by Muslim leaders to provoke collective violence against religious minorities. The incident is reminiscent of the Gojra carnage of August 1, in which three thousand violent Muslim protestors destroyed 140 houses, two churches and burnt seven Christians alive, including two children aged 6 and 13. As in Gojra, the Christian residents of Jethki are forced to flee for their lives and to find resettlement at other places.

These instigated acts of hostility are not random outbursts but suggest a greater conspiracy: Mosque leaders are exploiting the religious sentiments of Muslim folks to chase Christians away in order to occupy land owned by the latter. Many of these mosque leaders receive bribes from land-grabbers in the National and Provincial Assemblies and are hired by them to expropriate land using more discreet methods. It is therefore no surprise that these cases of violence have taken place in cities and villages where land has grown in commercial value. After the Christian residents departed, mosque leaders usually arranged for people to start building houses and other construction projects to occupy the land.

After the Jethki riot, the police did not launch an investigation although a first information report (FIR) has been lodged against the instigators of violence, nor did it arrest the clerics who violated Section 3 of Loud Speaker Act 1965 which bans all types of speech other than Azan (the call to prayer) and Khutba (the Friday sermon in Arabic). Instead, the District Police Officer (DPO) Sialkot Waqar Ahmad Chohan “negotiated” with Muslim party leaders and promised to arrest the Christians accused of blasphemy within a 24-hour deadline.

The blasphemy law was introduced by General Zia ul Haq (1977-88) and was amended in 2004 to prevent its widespread misuse against minorities, requiring police officers to produce substantial evidence before arrests are made. However, the vague formulation of the law and arbitrary enforcement by the police — as in this case — still lends ample room to manipulation. According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), at least 964 persons were alleged under the blasphemy law from 1986 to August 2009.

People are aware of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s announcement in August that a committee will be formed to discuss “laws detrimental to religious harmony” and work to improve them. However, the government has only conceded to weak “procedural changes” without fundamentally altering the very laws that are directly responsible for legitimizing religious violence. Many Islamic provisions of the country’s Constitution, such as those declaring that sovereignty belongs to Allah and that all laws would be interpreted in the light of Quran and Sunnah, effectively hand religious leaders the formidable power to interpret and apply the law according to their will.

National Students Federation, all leftist groups and many NGOs has repeatedly called for the repeal of the blasphemy laws by the Pakistani government and for responsible enforcement of the Loud Speaker Act 1965 by the police. Their failure to arrest those who fabricated charges of blasphemy and those who instigated collective violence by using mosque loud speakers is encouraging similar incidents to take place one after another, threatening the safety and security of religious minorities while eroding confidence in the country’s law system. I strongly urge the government to intervene to prevent further abuse of religious authority for the sake of political expediency and to offer immediate protection to minorities who are forced to leave their homes as a result of religious violence.

Friends, your comments will be highly appreciated!

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