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Pakistan's Christians bear brunt of harsh blasphemy laws

LAHORE, Pakistan — On that oppressive June day, while picking berries with two young Muslim women, a Christian named Asia Bibi offered to go fetch some water.

"I will not take water from the hands of a Christian,'' one of the woman told her.

Bibi, a poor mother of five, would later acknowledge that some "hot words'' ensued. But she denied saying what she allegedly said next: The prophet Mohammed was a thief. As he lay dying, insects crawled from his mouth and ears. The Koran is not a holy book but one made by man.

Five days later, on June 19, 2009, Bibi was arrested and taken to prison. She is still there today, a Christian sentenced to death for committing blasphemy against the religion of Islam.

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Of Pakistan's 187 million people, less than 3 percent are Christian. Most are descended from natives of the Indian subcontinent who converted to Christianity during the Raj, the century-long period of British rule.

In 1947, with Muslims clamoring for a homeland of their own, the subcontinent was partitioned into the new nations of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has been an unlikely ally with the United States in the fight against Islamic extremism. And for much of its recent history, it has been a place where Christians have known persecution, discrimination and fear.

"My parents always said, 'When it comes to religion, stay mum and don't voice an opinion,' '' says Elishba Abel, a 23-year-old college student and daughter of Christian missionaries. "I don't want to get thrown in prison.''

Older people remember a time in the early days of nationhood when Christians, some born to British fathers, enjoyed a loftier status in Pakistan. They had their own clubs and worshiped in thousands of churches, including Lahore's Anglican cathedral with a soaring bell tower dedicated to Queen Victoria.

"Christians were fairly superior to Muslims,'' says Dr. Christy Munir, 70, a chemistry professor at Forman Christian College in Lahore. "Then the Muslims started putting them down.''

Pakistan's constitution bans Christians from serving as president or prime minister, and severely limits the number of seats they can hold in Parliament. But it was one man — Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq — who did the most to marginalize Christians and other minorities.

Son of an imam and a fundamentalist himself, Zia imposed Islamic sharia law and greatly accelerated the "Islamization'' of Pakistani life while running the country from 1977 to his death in 1988. Many Christians found themselves on the ragged fringes of society, sweeping streets or fetching tea for their rich Muslim employers.

"Zia created a hell of a problem,'' says Victor Azariah, executive director of the National Council of Churches of Pakistan.

Pressure at work

When Babar Rana Iqbal went to work for Proctor and Gamble in Lahore in the early '90s, no one knew he was Christian because he had a Muslim-sounding name. Nor did he reveal that fact until a colleague was killed in a car crash and Muslim co-workers lined up to say prayers before the coffin. Iqbal stood apart.

"The next day, my boss said, 'Why didn't you join in funeral prayers?' I told him, 'because I am Christian, so I prayed in my own way.' After that day, treatment was different.''

Iqbal, 39, says he was subject to blistering criticism and tougher production goals than his colleagues, with the boss finally telling him: "You have to accept Islam or leave.'' He quit, enrolled in theological school and became a chaplain at Forman Christian College (whose president, Peter Armacost, is a former president of St. Petersburg's Eckerd College.)

"I don't think Islam is bad, just the way it is interpreted,'' Iqbal says. Still, his experience at Proctor and Gamble left him wary: Muslims "can be lovely friends, but you can't trust them.''

Hate crimes against Christians increased after the 9/11 attacks, when Pakistan reluctantly joined the war on terror under intense pressure from the Bush administration.

Three weeks after American jets began bombing Afghanistan, Islamic militants killed 15 Christians at a church in Lahore, Pakistan's cultural and intellectual center. In 2002, an American woman and her daughter were among the five worshipers who died in a grenade attack on a church in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

One of the many injured was Munir. He spent three months in the hospital and had seven surgeries. He still cannot use his right arm.

Many Christians jailed

A decade after 9/11, the fear of terrorist attacks against Christians has somewhat eased. But an insidious threat remains — Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws.

The laws, the strictest of any such ones in a predominantly Muslim country, ban blasphemy against all recognized religions. In practice, they apply only to blasphemy against Islam.

"As Pakistanis, whatever laws there are we are supposed to honor, but the problem in that law is there is no justice,'' says Azariah. "Muslims are so touchy that even if you say something for the sake of inquiry about religion, then they will consider that blasphemy and attack that person and all of the Christian community. This law is so widely misused.''

No Christians have been executed for alleged blasphemy — the maximum penalty is death — but thousands have been imprisoned. Azariah estimates there are more than 150 Christians in jail, among them Asia Bibi.

Bibi lived in a village outside Lahore where her husband worked in a brick kiln and she earned a few rupees a day picking falsas, a blueberry-like fruit, in fields owned by a Muslim man.

After Bibi allegedly made her anti-Islam remarks, the two Muslim women, who were sisters, went to the owner's son and accused her of blasphemy, court records show. At a subsequent gathering that included village elders and religious scholars, Bibi purportedly confessed and begged for pardon. A formal investigation — conducted by a Muslim government employee — concluded that the sisters told the truth. Bibi was arrested.

In November, a sharia judge found Bibi guilty and sentenced her to death.

Cheers for murderer

The verdict enraged not only Christians, but also some moderate Muslims. The governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, visited Bibi in jail and denounced the blasphemy statutes as "black laws'' that should be abolished.

Shortly before Christmas, Peter Armacost saw Taseer at a social function and praised him for standing on principle.

"He acknowledged he felt he had to, but he knew the political risk involved,'' Armacost says. "I know he told his wife, 'Be prepared to be a widow.' "

Two weeks later, Taseer was shot 26 times by one of his own security guards, who reportedly was angered by the governor's vocal opposition to the blasphemy laws. As the guard, Mali Qadri, was led into court, several young Muslim lawyers cheered him and showered him with rose petals. Qadri is now the subject of a glowing book.

Bibi continues to sit in solitary confinement. Every two weeks, her husband, Ashiq Masih, brings her ice, tea, some vegetables. She is allowed to cook her own meals for fear she might be poisoned by other inmates or even the jailers.

Masih can no longer work because of death threats. He and his children, including a handicapped 13-year-old daughter who cannot speak, move from place to place as they await the outcome of Bibi's appeal to Pakistan's highest court. Even if she is freed, the family would remain in too much danger to stay in Pakistan, Azariah says.

Though Bibi's death sentence is likely to be overturned, she could languish in prison for years.

"Courts are very much afraid to try these cases because the religious leaders go into court and pressure the judges,'' Azariah says. "The judges are also afraid for their lives.''

With reason. Azariah recalls another case in which a Christian was sentenced to death. A judge acquitted him — and was shot to death in his chambers a few days later.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Pakistan's Christians bear brunt of harsh blasphemy laws 07/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 1:10pm]

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