or the past few weeks now, Iram Naz has been waking up wrapped in fear while one of her two sons has been refusing to go to school. The boy, an 11-year-old, tells her he doesn’t want to go to class because “someone might kill me.”
Just recently, Naz’s mother passed away “because of anxiety over our safety.” The 40-year-old widow says, “Every Saturday at church, we gather to pray for Pakistan and our Muslim countrymen. However, this occurrence has caused us severe psychological trauma in addition to property damage.”
Naz and her family are part of the Christian community in Jaranwala, a town in Pakistan’s central eastern province of Punjab. Last Aug. 16, armed mobs descended on the community, and smashed their way into homes there as well as torched several churches — all because of allegations that Christians from the community had torn pages from a Quran and had written on these.
Jaranwala Police Superintendent Bilal Mahmood Sulehri says that 23 churches and more than 80 residences were damaged. There have been no reports of any casualty. According to some locals, they left after hearing exhortations from a nearby mosque goading Muslims to go after Christians. The police meanwhile say that they had knocked on doors of Christian homes and told the occupants to leave by pretending to be part of the growing Muslim crowd. Human Rights Watch (HRW) offers a slightly different account from some resident Christians, whom HRW says told activists that hours before the mobs came, they were forewarned by the police, who also said that there was nothing they could do to stop the attack from happening.
What no one contests, however, is that such a violent attack on a religious minority is not surprising in Pakistan. Rights activists and legal experts also say that so long as its blasphemy laws are not repealed or at least revised to strengthen and protect the rights of non-Muslims, Pakistan’s religious minorities will continue to be at the receiving end of unjust acts, including those involving violence.
Just between January this year and the Aug. 16 attack, the Dawn newspaper recorded 13 instances of members of religious minorities getting in trouble with authorities or attacked by mobs due to blasphemy allegations.
Most of Pakistan’s 241 million people — at least 85 percent — are Sunni Muslims, while 10 percent are Shi’a Muslims and less than one percent Ahmaddiya. There are also smaller communities of Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Sikhs. Although they are Muslims, Shi’as and especially the Ahmaddiya are considered religious minorities in Pakistan. The Ahmaddiya are even prohibited from identifying themselves as Muslim.
“The mob mentality in Pakistan is a result of the growing discourse of hatred spread by different political and religious groups that capitalize on religion toward other religions or individuals,” observes lawyer and rights activist Nouman Muhib Kakakhel. “Additionally, as a nation, our growing intolerance because of increasing economic hardships in our country can be attributed in part to fuel rage and anger and can aggravate such crimes.”
Making the situation worse are laws skewed in favor of the religious majority.
Chapter 15 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) defines and provides for blasphemy laws. It also stipulates that all religions are safeguarded, with a deterring protection given to places of worship, religious beliefs, and personages. Violation of these is punishable by imprisonment that may extend to three years or a fine of PKR 500,000 (US$1,631).
But under these rules — which are more centered on Sunni Islam — defiling the Holy Quran or the name of the Prophet is punishable by a life sentence or the death penalty, respectively. So while the laws serve as a deterrent to minority groups, Muslims do not think twice about attacking non-Muslims and their places of worship since the punishment is insufficient to discourage them from doing so, Kakakhel says.
Mob attacks are often driven by hearsay and occur without any real understanding of the situation, he says.
“A complex mix of social, political, and personal factors contribute to Pakistan’s pervasive culture of mob violence and the misuse of blasphemy laws,” he adds. “People often choose to falsely accuse others of blasphemy as a means of escaping and settling their personal issues.”
Sulehri says the accusation that triggered the Aug. 16 mob attack appears to have been stoked by personal revenge, with a jealous husband determined to bring harm to his wife’s alleged lover. But he cautions that with the investigation still ongoing, the picture remains incomplete.
Kakakhel comments that sanctions meted on those found guilty of blasphemy should also be imposed on those who accuse others of the crime without giving supporting proof or are found to have made false claims. Such penalties for accusers would help protect the rights of religious minorities and lessen frivolous accusations, he argues.
Peter Jacob, executive director at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), thinks a 2017 amendment to the PPC could be applied to cases involving false claims of blasphemy. But he calls the law “impractical” since “people who get rid of blasphemy allegations after being accused” are interested only in “safe and normal living rather than engaging in another litigation.” For Jacob, there should be “an automatic initiation of the proceeding” against someone whose allegations the court finds to be untrue.
Propagating hate and prejudice
So far, about 170 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, many of them youths, including minors. The two Christians alleged to have committed blasphemy have also been detained. No one is facing definite charges yet, but Sulehri says that everyone involved will be dealt with according to law.
Lawyer Asiq Hussain Gujjar, who is also the secretary general of the Bar Council in Jaranwala, asserts that many of those detained by the police were trying to stop the mobs from burning churches and homes. He believes the attack was planned.
CSJ’s Jacob says that many of these occurrences are engineered rather than organic, and stem from a mindset continuously promoted by various groups. Since their inception in the 1980s, Jacob says, blasphemy laws have been frequently misused in Pakistan. The religious political parties seeking to gain political power tend to support such legislation, he remarks.
The national narrative is based on a form of religious nationalism, which encourages prejudice and hostility, Jacob points out. So while Pakistan’s constitution guarantees equality, the charter itself creates two levels of citizenship that keep certain privileges for Muslims. Therefore, says Jacob, the constitution, and substantive laws and policies manifest preferences and discriminations on the basis of religion.
“For instance, a popular slogan in Pakistan regarding the narrative for Kashmir is that ‘Jannat Kisi Kafir Ko Mili Hai Na Milay Gi,’ which means non-Muslims would not go to paradise,” says the CSJ head. “The use of religious hatred and prejudice in the political narratives has become incredibly divisive and dangerous. Therefore, if you don’t believe in the equality of citizens regardless of their backgrounds, you can’t treat them equally and you can’t prevent radical beliefs and tendencies from spreading.”
“A declining standard of governance and the institutional dysfunction are a logical outcome of a disregard to rule of law and equality of rights,” he continues. “Now legislative, judicial, and executive institutions are failing to work together, which hinders effective solutions to these problems. Attacks fueled by religious fanaticism have persisted unabatedly throughout the years, raising questions about the government’s capacity to stop such violence.”
Fear amid questions
“I am not having anger toward those who destroyed our homes and churches,” says Pastor Mashooq Masi. “Rather, I feel pity for them because they may not be aware that their actions have not only hurt Christians and other minorities but have brought a lot of shame to Pakistan.”
He says that regardless of one’s religious background, those who commit blasphemy should be held accountable for their actions. But, he asks, why involve other people who have nothing to do with the matter? He wonders why the police were unable to stop the mobs and even allowed the destruction to go on from morning until evening.
Meanwhile, authorities used tear gas, baton charges, and water cannons to end the protests that had involved larger numbers of people. According to a police officer, “resources that were available were mobilized immediately,” but “the challenge at hand” proved much greater than what they had available, especially in terms of manpower.
“The police are often more active at night because that’s when most crimes happen,” says the officer. “There are just 60 police staff working in Jaranwala, and they are mostly present during the night shift. They work in two shifts. Because there weren’t enough daytime staff available at the time of the occurrence, Christian … lives were prioritized. Police didn’t use tear gas in the Christian colony due to narrow lanes, the mob approaching from all sides, and the presence of citizens including children and the elderly in their homes.”
The authorities are devoted to prosecuting those who are accountable, says Sulehri. They are currently concentrating on rehabilitation and reconstruction operations, he adds, and “working diligently on initiatives that foster dialogue and harmony between the two communities.”
But many members of the Christian community remain uneasy and wary. Requesting to be referred to only as Josephine for this story, the lone Christian teacher at a college in Jaranwala tears up while trying to express her feelings about the attack.
Her family’s home had been spared during the mob’s rampage due to the quick thinking of her husband’s Muslim friend. He had spread a prayer mat in a prominent place in their home and removed all their cross symbols.
“I have worked as an educator for a long time, consistently encouraging love and acceptance among people,” says Josephine. “It disturbs me that I saw misguided people, especially juveniles, assault houses and churches. I keep telling my husband that we should look into moving since I am unable to forget and this persistent worry won’t go away.” ◉
Jamaima Afridi is a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan-based freelance journalist, working on women’s rights/issues, Afghan refugees, and religious freedom. She reports on human rights in conflict regions.