ISTANBUL (BP)–Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” laws can put even children at risk, and Christians say the days when they could teach their offspring pat answers to protect them from accusations of disparaging Islam or its prophet seem to have passed.
A 30-year-old Pakistani woman who grew up in Lahore said her Christian parents taught her formula answers to keep from falling prey to accusations under the blasphemy statutes, such as “I am a Christian, I can only tell you about Him.” But even then, before militant Islamists began influencing Pakistani society as they have in recent years, schoolchildren were taught not to discuss religion, she said.
“We knew never to get into religious discussions with others,” she said. “We had them at home — our parents would put us through the drill of asking us tough questions to see how we answered. Only now I realize that was practice for school.”
In this way, she was imbued with the fundamentals of the Christian faith and at the same time learned that she should discuss it only with her parents, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Though the Christian faith is inherently evangelistic, the blasphemy laws have made people silent, she added. The blasphemy statutes signal to non-Muslims that they are second-class or “dhimmi” status citizens who must stay within narrow social boundaries, leave or be killed, she said.
“Christians constantly face questions like, ‘What do you think of the Quran, do you like it?’ and, ‘What do you think of Muhammad?'” she said. “One answer is, ‘As a Christian I have only read the Bible, I can’t read Arabic.’ These questions used to be easier to answer, we had formulas. But those are not working any more. We just tell children ‘Don’t talk about religion in school.’ This is shaky ground now.”
She added, “Some parents don’t even tell their children about Jesus, because they are scared they will go to school and say something wrong. One street kid did not know anything except about the blasphemy law. When her mother was asked why she did not teach her daughter about Jesus instead of the blasphemy law, she replied, ‘If I tell her too much, she will talk about it on the street, and someone will kill her or charge her with blasphemy.'”
The street child, she said, was afraid to tell her what church she attended.
“She said the mullah in the shop behind us was listening, and as she said that, I saw the man nearly fall off his chair from trying to listen to us,” she said.
An entire generation, Christians fear, is growing up not knowing their faith for fear that it will lead to potentially disastrous schoolyard talk. Moreover, children required to take Islamic studies in school are in danger with a single misstep.
“If they write anything or misspell anything to do with the prophet Muhammad, they can be in serious danger,” the source said. “In fact, the other side of this is that they are made to answer questions saying what a wonderful man he was.”
Christian kids in predominantly Muslim areas don’t have friends to play with, as even a cricket game can be risky, she said. Adults are equally fearful.
“People in offices are silenced into submission,” she said. “The fear is creating aggression.”
Conviction under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy law for derogatory comments about Muhammad is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Curiously, accusers in blasphemy cases cannot repeat the alleged derogatory comments without risk of being accused of blasphemy themselves.
A district court judge last November stunned the nation and the international community by handing down a death sentence to a Christian mother of five for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad.
Subsequently three politicians spoke out against the blasphemy law that put Asia Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) in prison. Two of them have been killed for standing up for Noreen and against the blasphemy law. One is in hiding for fear of her life.
Noreen, mother of two children and stepmother to three others, has been in prison in solitary confinement since June 2009, accused of having blasphemed against Muhammad, after a verbal disagreement with some women in the village of Ittanwali, near Lahore. If she is released from prison, her life will be at risk. Her husband and children are on the run, receiving constant threats from Muslims who say they will take justice into their own hands.
Suspected Islamic militants in Faisalabad shot dead two Christians about to be acquitted of blasphemy charges on July 19, 2010. The Rev. Rashid Emmanuel, 32, and his 30-year-old brother Sajid Emmanuel were shot days after handwriting experts on July 14 notified police that signatures on papers denigrating Muhammad did not match those of the accused. Expected to be exonerated, the two leaders of United Ministries Pakistan were being led in handcuffs under police custody back to jail when they were shot.
Christian Lawyers’ Foundation President Khalid Gill said the two bodies bore cuts and other signs of having been tortured, including marks on their faces, while the brothers were in police custody.
For secular-educated Pakistanis, the blasphemy law has come to symbolize the measure to which militant Islam has overtaken society. In the span of three months, Islamists murdered two of the nation’s most outspoken leaders against the blasphemy law. On Jan. 4 Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, was murdered, and on March 2 parliamentarian Shabaz Bhatti, who as federal minister for minority affairs was the only Christian cabinet member, was assassinated in Islamabad.
Pakistan is moving increasingly towards a state driven by fear of militants, where even moderate politicians make conservative choices to appease Islamist threats, according to Sara Taseer Shoaib, daughter of the late Taseer.
“Pakistan is definitely becoming more right-wing and extremist when it comes to religion,” she said. “Religious parties are gaining a cult following, and even moderate leaders are trying to gain popularity and votes by taking a right-wing position.”
The reasons for this shift, she said, are many: issues like defense of the blasphemy law serve to deflect attention from the real issues of poverty and lack of hope; there is an increasing trend to blame all woes on the West; and there is a prevailing sense of a need to defend Islam as the perception remains that it is under global attack.
From Compass Direct News (www.compassdirect.org), a California-based news service focusing on the persecuted church. Used by permission.