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SHEA: Who speaks for Pakistan minorities now?

WASHINGTON (BP) — Today, March 2, is the one-year anniversary of the murder in Pakistan of 42-year-old Shahbaz Bhatti. Still no one has been charged with the crime, much less tried and held accountable.

Bhatti, minister of minorities affairs and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was ambushed and assassinated by gunmen as he sat in a car outside his mother’s house before leaving for work.

Bhatti’s work, his life’s work, was to struggle for equality under the law for Pakistan’s various religious minorities. He had often expressed his opposition to Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and persistently sought to reform them. Like Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, who had been murdered in January 2011, Bhatti had championed the case of Asia Bibi, the mother of five sentenced to death for blaspheming Islam’s prophet, a charge brought by other villagers with whom she had a property dispute.

Bhatti had waged a strong campaign for the repeal of the blasphemy laws, both within the government and as the longtime head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a non-governmental organization. He saw the blasphemy laws — which only protect Islam — as potently divisive to Pakistan’s society. They are used as a platform within the society for extremists to determine which ideas can be expressed and which cannot, and they are used by ordinary citizens to pursue vendettas and personal grievances.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s killing. Two weeks ago, Interpol agents arrested, in Dubai, Zia-ur-Rehman, and a few days later Pakistani police took custody of Abid Malik, two Pakistani suspects in the murder. But the case is far from solved. Dubai has already released Rehman.

An Islamabad police official, who requested anonymity, told Pakistan’s Tribune, “To treat them [the two] as prime suspects would be wrong. We have no evidence to suggest that they were involved in the murder even though they could have certain issues with him.” They had differences with Bhatti over property issues, “but they were not capable of carrying out such a high-profile assassination,” the official said. “Investigations regarding the case were muddy and not carried out in a proper manner,” he said, adding that “some evidence points towards sectarian or militant violence.”

Meanwhile, Shahbaz Bhatti’s old post of minority affairs has been abolished, Asia Bibi languishes on death row, and Pakistan sinks ever deeper into radical Sunni Islam. And, the blasphemy arrests continue apace.

Any person can file a complaint of blasphemy against another, and once it is lodged, there is no turning back. On Dec. 6 of last year, another Christian — 25-year-old Khurram Masih of Qazi, near Lahore — was arrested under false charges of blasphemy. A newlywed of two months, he was working as a mason at the residence of the Muslim Abdul Majeed. The night before, after work, Masih burned some waste materials, and Majeed cried out that Masih had ripped and burned parts of the Koran. Majeed took him to the police station and filed a complaint for blasphemy against him. According to the British Pakistani Christian Association, many religious leaders and human-rights activists unsuccessfully intervened on behalf of Khurram Masih, while extremist groups staged demonstrations, declaring that “a Christian has desecrated the Koran and must be punished.”

And there’s a recent case that American military would be wise to keep in mind should they continue distributing Qurans to Taliban prisoners. In October 2011, Ruqqiya Bibi, another Pakistani Christian woman, not to be confused with Asia Bibi, was sentenced to a 25-year prison term for blasphemy on accusations that she defiled a Quran after handling it with unclean hands.

Another Pakistani currently imprisoned for blasphemy is Imran John, a Christian living in Faisalabad. While cleaning his fruit and vegetable shop in July 2009, John had collected waste paper and burned it in the street. A nearby shop owner accused him of burning pages of the Quran and called this to the attention of other Muslims who proceeded to beat and torture him. Saved by police intervention, John was then arrested and formally charged with blasphemy.

Even if acquitted, the lives of those accused of blasphemy are at risk, and they have to go into hiding to escape vigilante violence. For example, on Nov. 11, 2005, Yousuf Masih, a Christian, won several thousand rupees in a card game with his Muslim neighbor. The sore loser, seeking revenge, informed the police that Yousuf had set fire to a copy of the Quran. On Feb. 18, 2006, the neighbor withdrew the charge and Yousuf was released on bail. Angered at the outcome, local Muslim clerics summoned their followers to “avenge the insult.” A 2,000-strong mob attacked Masih’s home and the homes of much of the rest of the town’s minority Christian community, set fire to three churches and vandalized a Catholic convent and a Christian elementary school.

Christians are far from the only targets of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. But, like the Ahmadiya Muslim sect officially banned as heretical in Pakistan, Christians are disproportionately prosecuted under them. Further, they are nearly always convicted, because their testimony is given only half the weight of their Muslim accusers by the sharia courts.

Shahbaz Bhatti’s death was not unforeseen. He had been continuously threatened with assassination and had spoken of its likelihood. Bhatti even left a videotaped message to be broadcast if he were murdered, in which he says that threats by al-Qaeda and the Taliban would not change his views or stop him from speaking out for “oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities” in Pakistan.

Who in Pakistan will speak for them now?
Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author with Paul Marshall of “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedoms Worldwide” (Oxford University Press, 2011). Shea also is a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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  • Nina Shea