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Mike Thompson in Lahore

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Mike Thomson in Pakistan.
Concerns are being raised about the welfare of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan.

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Mike Thomson reports from Lahore in Eastern Pakistan.


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The sound of Christian hymns can be heard drifting through the open door and the church is packed. Yet the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence Saldanha, who is taking the service, is not happy. In fact, he is clearly a worried man.

After the service finishes the Archbishop tells me that Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws are “making it difficult for Christians to live in Pakistan”. Citing figures from the church’s own, National Commission for Justice and Peace, (backed up by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) he tells me that there have been more than seven hundred blasphemy cases over the last twenty years.

The Archbishop says that growing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, spurred on by the Iraq war and recent controversial comments on Islam by the Pope, has helped push the number of blasphemy cases here to an all-time high last year. He claims such cases are increasingly being brought by those simply wishing to settle ‘old scores’.

“This is the result of the intolerant attitude which is now prevalent in Pakistan. We (Christians) find ourselves find ourselves very much afraid that on a small pretext our people can be accused of blasphemy. Once they are accused of blasphemy there is very little chance of them being acquitted. So, therefore, our people live very much in fear.”

Dost Mohammad, Imam of one of the biggest mosques in the capital Islamabad, is amongst the many Islamic clerics who fully back the blasphemy law.

“According to our Islamic teachings any person who commits blasphemy should be killed. He deserves the death sentence. The person who insults the prophets sent by God is worse than an animal and should not be left in society. It is like HIV, we need to eliminate that disease otherwise it will infect others.”

Fundamentalist mobs are said to have besieged many blasphemy hearings, intimidating judges into convicting those before them. The vast majority of cases are later thrown out on appeal but only after the accused has often spent several years in jail. Bail is rarely given in such cases due to the fact that blasphemy carries the death penalty and it is feared that the accused may abscond.

Not that blasphemy accusations are only faced by Christians. Even larger numbers of Muslims face the same charges. The difference, I am told, is that when a Christian is accused it can lead to his family, friends and even whole Christian neighbourhood being attacked as well. Churches have been burnt and even whole villages targeted by mobs.

I’m taken to meet, Aslamasee, a forty year-old Christian man, who served four years of a fifty year sentence after being convicted of blasphemy, before being finally freed on appeal. He tells me how he was beaten by an angry crowd after he was charged with putting a picture of the prophet, Mohammed, inside a locket and then hanging it around the neck of a dog. This he has always denied but it didn’t stop him having a terrible time in jail:

“In the jail the other prisoners beat me regularly. Sometimes even the prison staff joined in too. I was badly hurt several times. They beat me, tortured me and threatened to murder me. On one occasion some inmates tried to kill me with a weapon that they’d made in prison. They attacked me with hand-made knives and stabbed me here. Look, you can see the scar. It’s still there.”

Officially, Aslamasee is a free man now, but due to repeated threats on his life since his release he has to live in hiding. He is so concerned about his safety that even many members of his family have not been told where he is.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to live freely again after this case. Since I was released from jail I have had to live in hiding. Nobody has found me so far thanks to my lawyers who are helping me. But it’s very difficult having to live apart from my family….away from the people I love…my brothers and sisters and all my family. It’s so painful that I can’t find the words to describe it.”

Pakistan’s Minister of Law, Justice and Human Rights, Wasi Zafar, denies that blasphemy cases are as numerous as claimed. He insists that ever since the law was amended so that only a police officer of the rank of Superintendent or above can bring charges, cases of injustice have greatly declined. Plus, he claims that most of those complaining of abuse under the blasphemy laws are merely trying to win visas in the west.

Try telling that to a Christian woman I met whose husband was jailed for blasphemy earlier this year. Mena, is too scared to visit him in jail after being chased by a group of men who said they would attack her if she came back again. They would have assaulted her on the spot but for the intervention of her lawyer, Pervez Chaudhry, who has already suffered six attempts on his own life for defending blasphemy cases.

Forced to flee her family home soon after the accusation was made, Mena is still living in hiding with her four children. When she last saw her husband he told her that he had been attacked repeatedly in jail and she fears he may not make it out alive. I asked what she tells her children when they question her about when they will next see their father:

“When they ask I tell them…tomorrow, tomorrow he’ll definitely be here. Every day I have to lie to my children and say their father will be home tomorrow. Only today my daughter asked me that very question.”



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