by Lela Gilbert
August 5, 2020
Once again, Pakistan is in the news. Unsurprisingly, the news is bad. And even less surprisingly, the latest news from that troubled country centers around religion—more specifically the lack of religious freedom in Pakistan.
This past week, an American citizen was shot dead in Peshawar, and he didn’t die in a dark alleyway or in a terrorist attack. No, according to CNN, “Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died on Wednesday… after a member of the public walked into the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials.”
Naseem, who belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, had been charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under the Pakistan penal code. And before a judge could decide on his fate, he was assassinated by an Islamist thug.
Clearly, blasphemy certainly isn’t a deadly crime in North America. Indeed, during recent violence across the U.S., relentless insults have been hurled at Christians and Christianity, whether in word or deed. Statues of priests and missionaries have been toppled, sanctuaries and religious schools vandalized, and at least one historic mission torched. Meanwhile, verbal abuse of God-fearing Jews is common parlance in anti-Israel protests and on social media.
However, blasphemy in Pakistan is another story. Blasphemy has become a deadly preoccupation of the country’s radical Muslims, whose constitution provides them full opportunity to incite violence and when possible, to imprison or kill anyone accused—most often falsely—of insulting Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, or the Koran, Islam’s religious holy book.
A former member of the Pakistani parliament and my courageous friend and journalist, Farah Ispahani told me,
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous as the society at large has become more extremist and unwilling to share space with those of other beliefs like Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – and even those of the same faith, but of different sects like Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. There is still a majority of Pakistanis who will not kill someone who believes or practices differently, but those of other faiths have become fearful of armed jihadi groups, and the madrasahs the killers come from.
Her statement has been confirmed by an article in the New York Times with the headline, “Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By.” According to the story, in June dozens of Hindu families converted to Islam in a mass ceremony. “What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” one of the new converts candidly told a reporter.
In an interview for the Times report, Ms. Ispahani explained, “The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in — a weak economy and now the pandemic — we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day.”
Most Christians in Pakistan are unlikely to convert to Islam, but they are more than aware of the risks they face every day. This, not only thanks to the dehumanization they experience, but also in dread of false blasphemy accusations.
Blasphemy accusations can result if a non-Muslim speaks an unkind word against a neighbor or posts a careless insult on social media. But more than often, there’s no real offense to begin with. Such charges can emanate from the lies and libels of jealous neighbors, or from false statements made by mocking adolescents, or even from winning the jackpot at a card game.
Meanwhile, winning a case against false accusations in Pakistan is another story. As the story of Tahir Naseem makes clear, the legal system provides no protection nor opportunity for a fair trial. How did an armed fanatic find his way into Naseem’s courtroom and manage to shoot him dead? It was possible because vigilantes have virtually free reign in Pakistan. Christians accused of blasphemy have as much to fear from fanatical mobs as from unjust judges.
Who can forget the tragic story of Asia Bibi? A simple farmworker whose initial offense was drinking water from a common cup with other berry-pickers, she ended up on death row for nine years on false blasphemy charges. She was eventually freed and fled the country, thanks to a widespread international outcry.
Yet even though she escaped, Asia Bibi’s life was destroyed and her false charges ended up costing the lives of two government officials who tried to defend her. Both prominent politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for Christian minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for speaking out in Asia Bibi’s defense.
Pakistan is, indeed, a “country of particular concern,” as re-designated by USCIRF in December 2019, “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” Meanwhile, Open Doors listed Pakistan as #5 on its 2020 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians in the world.
So what can we do? We need to make our voices heard. Let’s encourage our legislators, the State Department and the White House to take a firmer hand in negotiating with the radicalized state of Pakistan. Let’s share the facts on social media. Let’s alert our pastors and our Bible study groups.
When it comes to religious freedom, let’s keep the old saying in mind: “Act as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.”