It could not have been worse. A girl barely in her teens with Down ’s syndrome was taken into custody on Thursday, after fanatic-minded Muslim protestors demanded she be punished for violating the harsh Blasphemy law. Her arrest came on the heels of the brutal death of an 11-year- old Christian boy who was found tortured to death: his lips were cut, nose sliced and belly cut and ultimately burnt.
While investigators are uncertain over the cause of death, blind religious extremism is on the upswing with no shortage of “witnesses”, who are in fact self-appointed religious vigilantes on the lookout for any transgression — real or imagined. There ought to be concern internationally over religious intolerance in Pakistan. The country has seen the most terrible acts enacted in the name of the blasphemy law. In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard after he expressed sympathy for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Scarcely two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad when his car was sprayed with bullets. In 1988, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad shot himself in frustration in a bid to attract global attention on the ridiculous law.
Today, the predicament of those prosecuted under blasphemy is pathethic: they cannot even engage lawyers to fight their case. Judges too are scared, often forced to give biased judgements. A year ago, Judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the two Lahore High Court judges who acquitted two of the Christians on charge of blasphemy was murdered.
The continued failure to reform these laws has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses, using the convenient excuse that it is being done in defence of religious sentiments. Detractors have been claiming that the laws are not connected to Islam, yet efforts at reforms have persistently been stonewalled. This, despite the fact that the law is maliciously abused to settle disputes or enable private citizens to take matters into their own hands. There have been instances where the law in connivance with police has been used to grab land belonging to minority Christians.
Despite the savageness and brutality towards innocent Christians, the so-called Christian countries have done precious little to open the doors of asylum for the prosecuted in Pakistan. The attitude is tragic because by their deafening silence, the international community is actually abetting in the crime. Goan NRIs can perhaps take the initiative to alleviate the persecuted because Goa and Pakistan had links even during the colonial times. Kin of Goans still live Pakistan. But above all, gross violation of human rights is a matter of much anxiety. The manner the minorities are treated as third rate citizens is of great worry.
One is left wondering how many more such cases will emerge before a change can be introduced. Pakistan is a country with many problems — from corruption to terrorism to regional secession movements. But nothing captures the primitive, bigoted spirit of the nation’s religious extremists more perfectly than the witch hunt for “blasphemers” that has been used to persecute selected indivudals without rhyme or reason.