Christians Bear Blasphemy Cross

Rasheeda Masih, 55, proudly displays a certificate of honor she received last year on behalf of her husband from the Germany-based International Society for Human Rights. At the same time, she is worried, knowing that this piece of paper will not help put an end to her family's miseries.

Her family was devastated when her husband, Ranjha Masih, now 56, a sanitary worker at a local hospital in Faisalabad, was charged for "blasphemy" and jailed in May 1998. All her six children and close family members were forced to abandon home and migrate after angry mobs tried to ransack their house soon afterwards.

While Ranjha languishes in prison awaiting trial, Rasheeda and her children have faced continuous persecution. "It is not just that we cannot return to our hometown, but no one is ready to employ any of my six sons," she told WFS while narrating her ordeal of seven years. 

The family's travails started when Ranjha took part in a mourning procession for John Joseph, a Roman Catholic Bishop from Faisalabad. Rev Joseph had been crusading against discriminatory laws against the minorities and finally shot himself in protest in front of a court in May 1998.

The mourning procession became unruly and a signboard with a Quranic verse inscribed on it fell down. A mob of Muslims who had also gathered grabbed Ranjha and accused him of knocking it down. The next day, the local Muslim clergy took a rally demanding Ranjha's arrest. Under pressure from the clergy, he was arrested and was charged under the blasphemy law. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment by the sessions court of Faisalabad in April 2003. He has appealed in the high court for a retrial, but the case is still pending because his family cannot afford to fight his case.

For 33 years of Pakistan's history, laws pertaining to blasphemy, which prescribed a maximum punishment of two years, remained untouched in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). Then, in 1980, Pakistani military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq had certain articles incorporated in the PPC which dealt with the misuse of the epithets, descriptions and titles that are reserved for certain holy personages and places in Islam and made them punishable with death or imprisonment for life.

Ranjha is kept in a solitary cell because jail administration believes that if he is kept in the general ward or allowed to walk, the prison inmates may kill him.

The fears of the prison administration are not unfounded: Naseem Bibi, 45, was beaten to death by her inmates in 2003 while in jail in Lahore on blasphemy charges. Similarly, Saleem and Rasheed Masih, two brothers who were jailed in May 1999 after being charged under the blasphemy law, said that their fellow-prisoners attacked them as soon as they discovered that they had been charged with blasphemy. "They became so violent that the jail administration had to resort to firing which resulted in the killing of two prisoners and many others were injured," Saleem recalled.

The two brothers were acquitted by the court in 2003. Saleem said a fake case was cooked up against them by a clergyman who wanted to buy their house but got them implicated in blasphemy after they refused. "Even though we have been exonerated by the court, we cannot return to our village because we fear retribution from the clergy," he contends.

According to official estimates, nearly 5,000 people, mostly belonging to minority communities, have been charged under the draconian blasphemy law. Significantly, not a single person has been convicted and most of those convicted by the lower courts have been ultimately released during retrials in the higher courts.

A majority of those accused under the blasphemy law are poor and cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Rights activists of various watchdog organizations defend them, but they face the threat of violent retribution from the religious zealots.

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had wanted to introduce minor procedural changes in the blasphemy law. One of them envisaged that a senior government official should conduct a preliminary inquiry before registering a case. But the fundamentalist lobby exerted so much pressure that he was forced to shelve the move.

Pakistan is under international pressure with regard to its human rights record. The Foreign Military Financing (FMF) Fund for Pakistan for 2007 was cut by $100 million to $200 million by the United States House of Representatives by a 373-34 vote in early February. The Bill specifically cited "increasing lack of respect for human rights, lack of progress for improving democratic governance and rule of law" as the chief reasons.

Despite these international pressures to correct its human rights track record, Pakistan's Religious and Minority Affairs Minister Aijaz-ul Haq said in a press statement recently that even if 100,000 Christians lose their lives, the blasphemy law would not be repealed.

For Pakistan's 3.8 million Christians, who comprise about 2.5 percent of the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population, the Sword of Damocles continues to hang over their heads.   


More by :  Massoud Ansari

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