Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Islam | Tags: blasphemy, peace
This past week seven Christians were burnt alive in the Gojra District of Punjab the most populated province in Pakistan. The rioters alleged that the Koran had been defiled by Christians. That is blasphemy. The Punjab government, now ruled by the Muslim League and home to several militant Islamic groups, delayed the launching of an investigation. A day earlier 70 homes of Christians were burned. Gojra is a city of 150,000 and headquarters of the Anglican Church of Pakistan.
As a child I was aware of Christian teachings in Luke 12:10 where blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is described as unforgivable. Like many other children I worried that I might have said something, done something or carried an attitude that might doom me forever. Finally I summoned the courage to ask a Sunday school teacher what the verse meant and was told that I should not worry about it. I took some comfort but continued to worry secretly about some of my bad words and thoughts.
My comfort level did not increase when I read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain”. (Exodus 20:7 KJV) And still more frightening for me was the phrase from Leviticus 4:16 where I read that blasphemy is a capital crime and that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death”. To be honest I wasn’t sure what the word blasphemy meant. Maybe my teachers didn’t know either.
In Islam, strict blasphemy is any act of speaking ill of the Prophet Mohammed or any other prophet identified in the Koran, saying that Jesus Christ is the son of God, or speaking disrespectfully of the one God. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights calls for everyone to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In 1948 when this was adopted most nations did not feel a need to protect God, religious leaders, or activists from blasphemy. Today militant religious movements – minority though they may be – have reinvented more primitive and literal applications of teachings regarding blasphemy.
In Pakistan the current blasphemy laws, the strictest in the Muslim world, provide penalties including death or fines for persons. Professional people, Muslims and non Muslims, have been subjects of prosecution, vigilantism or riots. Americans deserve to be reminded – perhaps some of us never knew – that these severe measures, Articles 295 B and C were put in place during a period of constitutional reform instituted under General Ziaul Haq who came to power through a military coup. General Ziaul Haq, perhaps the most conservative Muslim ever to rule Pakistan enjoyed a warm relationship with the government of Ronald Reagan. Their two militaries and intelligence services cooperated intensively in the fight to chase the Soviets from Afghanistan. This was also the period when the groundwork was laid for the Taliban movement.
Until General Haq’s period in the 1980s Pakistan included people from minority religions in its senior leadership. This pattern has returned only recently. In 2007 a Hindu was appointed Chief Justice of Pakistan and last year a Christian was appointed to the High Court.
In a show of strength by the local Gojra Christian community, the families refused to bury the coffins immediately but instead placed them on the city’s railroad track to block trains. Their courageous act was a protest against the police who had not taken steps to initiate an investigation. Sitting with the Christians beside the coffins in his black suit was Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
Another bold move was organized by Civil Junction, an Islamabad based safe gathering place and coffee shop which provided valued support for my recent trip to Pakistan. On August 4th they held a candle vigil for the victims of Gojra as a first step towards condemning the act and the laws which instigate and endorse such acts. The event was telecast live on Pakistani TV, and running coverage went out over radio. Bigger events are being organized.
After the Gojra killings there was a strong popular and federal government burst of condemnation. The Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace called the incident shocking and said, “There seems to be a growing consensus that society at large must fight this abuse of religion.” Muslim groups also spoke out.
These acts of public protest show that Christians and Muslims are working together in a campaign to put an end to blasphemy laws instituted in the mid 1980s. They also push for firm government prosecution when mob acts and terror is directed against any minority religion. About 5% of Pakistan’s 170 million people is made up of minority Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and others. The Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim group that believes that the Messiah or Muslim Mahdi returned symbolically in the form of its 18th century founder, are considered heretical by some Muslims and they are often treated with prejudice like those from non Muslim faiths.
The attack on Christians was probably carried out by one of many non Taliban militant groups in Pakistan. Christians who are often from the less fortunate classes are frequently charged by militant groups to have ties with Americans although I found little evidence for that when I travelled in Pakistan. The strong public condemnation and expressions of compassion from the broad Pakistani population is a reminder for all of us that like the US people’s response to the bombing in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995 there is a strong and decent center to Pakistani society.
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