The Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace and Blasphemy Laws
To mark the third annual UN Day to remember the victims of religiously motivated violence, Aid to the Church in Need puts the spotlight on the victims convicted under the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and spoke on this topic with Father Emmanuel Yousaf, project partner of ACN and director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP). The CCJP is currently handling 12 cases of blasphemy defendants. Of the 12 cases, 11 victims are Christian, and one is Hindu:
Could you explain the consequences of false accusations?
When a person is accused falsely, the impact is not limited to the victim itself, or the family, but the whole locality and neighborhood gets affected. Even their houses and churches are attacked and burned. For example, in Shanti Nagar, a Christian village in Khanewal city, the whole village was attacked because of one falsely accused person, Baba Raji. Similarly, seven people were burned alive in Gojra, a town close to Faisalabad, and Joseph Colony, a village on the outskirts of Lahore city, was attacked by a large mob, setting fire to more than 150 houses, including that of Sawan Masih, a falsely accused sanitation worker. Plus, a falsely accused victim, even after being acquitted, would not be able to return to her or his neighborhood or even her or his hometown. The lives of these victims are threatened forever, and many have been killed even after being acquitted.
Last April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning blasphemy laws in Pakistan. How important is this resolution for religious minorities in the country?
This resolution is of great importance for the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan, especially the Christian community. As the data show, blasphemy is the charge in 52 percent of the cases affecting religious minorities and in 14.5 percent of cases of Christians specifically. However, the Christian community represents only 1.27 percent of the population.
The resolution noted an alarming increase in blasphemy accusations over the last year in Pakistan, online and offline.
Yes, based on our experience of documented data on blasphemy cases since 1987, we have witnessed an alarming increase in blasphemy accusations in the past few years, especially following the growth in the use of social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
What are the causes of this increase?
During the pandemic we have seen an increase in these cases, taking advantage of the fact that the pandemic has caused hurdles in fact-findings and judicial investigations and the court proceedings were delayed. And, in the past, most of the cases used to be in rural areas, as someone would accuse another person of blasphemy to settle a personal score or obtain land or property. However, we are now witnessing an increase in urban areas, where cases are being registered against educated sectors of society such as students, nurses, doctors. and many other professionals. This is a cause for concern as it indicates that religious radicalization is on the rise and, therefore, there is a greater determination on the part of the majority to force others to convert or subscribe to their ideology—and when they refuse to do so, they are falsely accused of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Zahid Chaudhri stated in reaction to the EU resolution for Pakistan’s minorities: “The discourse in the European Parliament reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws.” What does he mean?
Pakistan, being a Muslim majority country, holds a perception that these laws are not man-made but divine. So, they cannot be changed and even repealing them cannot be considered. In the last decade or so society at large has become religiously radicalized, and it has become nearly impossible to demand the repeal of the law.
Therefore, the CCJP has always been asking the government to stop people from misusing this law and has also provided recommendations. Furthermore, CCJP does not demand repeal of the law but procedural amendments to the law. In his statement, Mr. Chaudhri speaks from the context of the belief of the majority community about the Holy Book, the oneness of Allah, the finality of Prophet Muhammad. and Islam being the superior religion above all. Over the years, due to a biased educational system, these believes have created an ideology that there is only room for Islam in this country.
Do the judicial and administrative mechanisms offer minorities the same opportunities and possibilities as they do the majority, as prescribed by the Constitution?
The CCJP commission has been committed to the defense of the rights of minorities since 1987.In Pakistan, the rights of religious minorities are not protected. For example, Article 41 of the constitution states that the president must be a Muslim citizen of Pakistan. Although this concerns only one of the highest positions in the country, its influence is seen in every prestigious and strategic position in every department. As a result, rarely would a minority member be appointed to such positions of power, be it in the judiciary, the armed forces and even, to some extent, in Pakistan’s administration.
What are you expecting from the international community and the EU?
The EU resolution is important, and we ask the international community to engage with the Pakistan’s government and put pressure on it to safeguard and ensure the protection of religious minorities. Furthermore, we would urge the international community to help Pakistan in promoting tolerance through education, building capacity through judicial and police training, and reforms for stable economic conditions—thus to help create an economically empowered society in which everyone is treated equally.