Blood for Blasphemy

Vigilante justice in Pakistan keeps Christian infidels living in terror.

The Swiss-based World Council of Churches (WCC) has taken a rare break from its usual condemnations of America and Israel to admirably speak out recently on behalf of Pakistani Christians murdered in July. Last year, the WCC, normally loathe to utter a peep against Islamists, issued an unusually substantive public statement against Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, which predictably fuels violence against non-Muslims and critics of Islamist groups.

“It is with great dismay that we received news that two young Christians, Pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajid Emmanuel, were shot dead by religious extremists in broad daylight in front of a district court compound in Faisalabad on 19 July,” wrote the WCC’s new Norwegian chief Olav Fykse Tveit in a July 23 letter to Pakistan’s president and prime minister.  Tveit, a Lutheran theologian, noted that the murdered brothers had been arrested for allegedly producing a handwritten leaflet “defiling” the Prophet Mohammad.  The young men, handcuffed together, were murdered by gunmen while leaving the Pakistani court.  An accompanying policeman was wounded.  The killers remain unidentified.

These gunmen perhaps were impatient for Pakistan’s legal system to punish the Christians, even though the Blasphemy Law does mandate death sentences even for unintentional purported blasphemy offenses.  The two brothers were returning to prison, amid rumors that the police would ultimately clear them of blasphemy charges.  Angry Muslims had demonstrated in favor of their execution, even though police reportedly realized that the “disrespectful material” about Muhammad did not match the Emmanuel brothers’ handwriting.  During one demonstration, Islamists reportedly threw stones at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church.  The Emmanuel brothers were Protestant, but the distinction was irrelevant to enraged Islamists hungry for blood.

Speaking for the WCC, Tveit told Pakistani officials that their Blasphemy Law “touches upon some of the more sensitive aspects of civil and religious liberty,” is “fraught with danger that can be abused by extremist groups when dealing with religious minorities,” and blasphemy charges are “arbitrarily applied and at times founded on malicious accusations against individuals and groups.”  The law is “inimical to and destructive of the harmony and well-being of people who live together in a religiously plural society, and has fueled “physical violence, damage, destruction of properties and loss of life within the innocent Christian minority over the years.”   Tveit urged Pakistan to bring justice to the killers of the Emmanuel brothers and to repeal the Blasphemy Law that facilitated their murder.

"We do not know what to do. We are helpless," Pakistan’s National Council of Churches chief Victor Azariah told Ecumenical News International.  Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Catholic Churches National Commission for Justice and Peace, urged “renewed commitment” to repealing the Blasphemy Law.  He told Asia News that “it is necessary to convince government and public opinion that these rules are dangerous, first of all, for the very survival of Pakistan."

Christians comprise less than 3 percent of Pakistanis and are typically and understandably loathe to strongly denounce their persecution, lest their plight only worsen.  Reportedly, Christian families fled the Faisalabad neighborhood where the Emmanuels lived, fearing for their own safety.  They remembered last year, when similar blasphemy charges led to Islamist mobs attacking two Pakistani Christian neighborhoods, killing 7 Christians, and torching hundreds of homes, plus churches and shops.  The Emmanuel brothers, leaders of United Ministries Pakistan, were arrested after an Islamist named Khurram Shahzad accused them of disseminating the anti-Muhammad leaflets, which conveniently and implausibly carried their names and phone numbers.

The murder of the Emmanuels excited further rioting and a police curfew.  Reportedly, some mosques urged their followers to react against supposedly rampaging Christians.  Some Christian shops and homes were attacked in seeming efforts to cripple them economically and presumably to encourage their departure.   Such threats against Pakistani Christians are not unusual.  A Pakistani Christian couple who have produced a documentary about last year’s Islamist attacks on the Christian neighborhoods are now enduring their own death threats.  Their film is "Burned Alive: the Fate of Christians in Pakistan.”

According to the BBC, no Pakistani has ever been officially executed under the Blasphemy Law, but 10 defendants have been extra-judicially murdered, and dozens of others live in exile or hiding to evade punishment.  Countless others no doubt refrain from their own minority religious expression or speak out on behalf of human rights lest they too fall under suspicion, like the Emmanuels.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has condemned the murder of the Emmanuels.  The “life of every person is sacred and no one should be allowed to take the law into his own hands,” he reportedly said, offering condolences to the family of the martyred Christians, urging a probe of their murder, and asking the provincial government to offer compensation to the aggrieved family.  It remains to be seen how vigorously the murders will be investigated.   And such murders seem almost inevitable so long as the Blasphemy Law persists.

Last year’s World Council of Churches critique of the Blasphemy Law noted it had become a “major source of victimization and persecution of minorities” and had created a “state of fear and terror” for Pakistan’s religious minorities, Christians especially.  The law, which President Zia Ul Haq enhanced in 1986 to please Islamist parties, is a convenient tool for personal vendettas and “fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence and persecution.”  Defamation of Muhammad is supposed to merit mandatory death sentence, and desecrating a Koran merits life imprisonment, though these blasphemies are vaguely defined.  The testimony of one complainant justifies immediate detention.  Conviction does not require proof of deliberate intent.  And courts are sometimes intimidated by threats of violence to convict.

In last year’s statement, the WCC noted that 647 people have reportedly been charged under the Blasphemy Law over the last 20 years.  It specifically implored Pakistan to repeal the death penalty requirement and urged a halt to the Blasphemy Law’s “misuse.”  That reluctance to demand complete repeal somewhat recalls the WCC’s traditional timidity when confronting other cultures over religious intolerance.  But the WCC chief’s most recent statement more boldly urging full repeal on behalf of the “rights and dignity” of all Pakistanis hopefully indicates a more robust witness for religious liberty by the WCC.