Sunday, August 9, 2009

In the Name of Blasphemy, Pakistani Christians Under Frequent Attack - 2


General Zia-ul-Haq, who later became the President of Pakistan,
introduced certain Islamic laws that are adversely
affecting the minority communities there

Photo Courtesy: The Internet

The State Discrimination Against Minority Groups

Elected Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1928 - 1979) promoted military personnel Zia-ul-Haq (1924 - 1988) -- also called Zia -- to the position of lieutenant general in 1975 and made him the Chief of Army Staff in 1976. Extremely ambitious Zia seized power on July 5, 1977 from Bhutto in a bloodless coup and became the Chief Martial-Law Administrator. In 1978, he installed himself as the President of Pakistan. In 1979, he got Bhutto hanged on charges of an attempted murder of a political opponent. Then he started to broaden his political support base by courting the Islamic political parties through islamizing Pakistan's political and cultural spheres.

President Zia's islamization process included introduction of a number of laws. Here we discuss three that most adversely affect the minority communities, including Christians of Pakistan:

  • The Separate Electorate System: In 1979, President Zia introduced the separate electorate system. It means, Muslims will only vote for Muslim candidates, and minority communities (Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and others) will vote for their own individual candidates. Minorities will have allocated seats in the provincial and central legislatures according to their percentage in the population. Because of this system, the minorities became the second-class citizens. They cannot participate in the mainstream politics. They became marginalized without having equal rights and responsibilities with the members of the majority Muslim community. Since the minorities do not vote for the majority candidates, elected Muslim members of the provincial or national parliaments do not feel that they are responsible for looking after the rights and interests of the minorities. Minority leaders, including Christian leaders, have been demanding the abolition of the separate electorate system, but so far nothing happened.
  • The Blasphemy Laws: In 1986, President Zia promulgated Section 295(B), 295(C) and 298(A), 298(B) and 298(C) specifically mentioning offenses relating to the religion of Islam. Violation of these blasphemy laws carries long prison sentences or death by hanging, if a person (Muslim or non-Muslim): 1. Injures or defiles places of worship with the intent to insult the religion of any class; 2. Performs deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs; 3. Defiles a copy of the Holy Quran; 4. Uses derogatory remarks with respect to the Holy Prophet (Mohammad) of Islam; 5. Utters words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings; 6. Uses derogatory remarks with respect to holy personages (persons) and places; lastly, 7. If a person of the Qadian group or Ahmadi calls himself a Muslim or preaches or propagates his faith. "In almost all cases, the law does not require any solid written proof, just the offensive remarks and few witnesses to get a conviction...In addition to the state functionaries, any private person can file a case in the police station against any person under these laws. For this reason, blasphemy laws have been repeatedly misused against religious minorities and [other] Muslims. In almost all cases, the complainants have been private individuals with a personal grudge or religious zeal" (from Chapter 19: "Islamic Radicalism and Minorities in Pakistan" by Rasul Bakhsh Rais in Religious Radicalism and Security in Asia, p. 459.). He also writes: "The blasphemy laws have not only increased religious intolerance but have failed to provide any legal or institutional safety net for religious minorities," (p. 460). The same writer adds: "The state's declining capacity is part of the problem; while religious bigots have been preaching hatred and violence against minorities, the state has remained silent. Participatory politics and civic culture with a focus on citizenship rights have suffered gravely due to the repeated failure of the democratic process in Pakistan. In this democratic vacuum, religious extremism -- riding on the wave of jihad in Afghanistan and with transnational connections with similar groups -- has taken strong roots in society" (p. 462 of the same book). In 2000, General Parvez Musharraf wanted to bring about some changes in the blasphemy laws which were wrongly used by vested quarters to take revenge on rivals or to serve their self-seeking purposes. To avoid false accusations, he wanted that claims about blasphemy be initially referred to a senior civil servant, who would then investigate before ordering any arrest. Islamic groups protested so vehemently against these changes to the laws that General Musharraf then decided not to go forward with his proposed reform. According to the Vatican Radio, Catholic and Protestant Christians, on August 9, 2009, reiterated their call on the government of Pakistan to repeal the abusive blasphemy laws that are the root cause of the recent spate of anti-Christian violence. Peter Jacob, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan) said that Christians and moderate Muslims were becoming increasingly frustrated with Muslim fundamentalists' abuse of this misleading law and government inaction.
  • Addition of "Religion Column" in Pakistani Passports: In 1980, President Zia introduced a column in the Pakistani Passport where the passport-holder must mention his or her religion. This column was introduced to pinpoint the religion of the passport owner so that the Ahmedis (Qadians), who have been declared non-Muslims in the 1974 Constitution of Pakistan, can be barred from traveling to Mecca of Saudi Arabia for hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) purposes. Another hidden intention probably was to easily identify Pakistani minorities, including Christians, majority of whom bear similar Arabic or Farsi (Persian) names as those of the Muslims. However, to comply with the international standard travel document, set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Pakistan government did away with the religion column in the passport starting from January, 2005. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the six-party religious alliance, blamed the government of President Parvez Musharraf of following USA's move in secularizing their society and damaging the Islamic identity of the Muslim nation of Pakistan. It also said that the omission of the religion column would allow Ahmadis to travel to Mecca for the hajj. Because of increasing agitation and fear of further violence, the government on March 22, 2005 decided to reinstate the religion column in passports. The National Commission for Justice and Peace in a statement on March 23, 2005, criticized the government's decision and said: "Contrary to the expectations of taking concrete steps towards addressing the issues concerning wellbeing of the masses of Pakistan, the Cabinet once again chose to play around the non-issues. The decision rather reflects that the government is not acting on principles but rather yielding to pressure from the extremist forces. It is sad to note that the religious minorities in the country were neither consulted nor their concerns on the issues were taken into account."

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