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Religious bigotry is raising its head in Pakistan, where reports of a mob that allegedly beat a young Christian couple to death and then burned their corpses in a brick factory are making headlines. Accusations of blasphemy and desecrating the Quran spurred this vigilante attack – the latest in the list of questionable accusations of which minorities have been accused for years.
Sajjad and Saima “Shama” Massih, the slain Christian couple, belonged to the rural community of Kot Radha Kishan in the state of Punjab, just 40 miles outside Lahore. Local reports suggest that Sajjad Massih, the husband, had a financial falling out with his employers. The couple was beaten and incinerated by an angry mob after rumours of their alleged disrespect to the Islamic faith and the Quran spread locally. Inspector Maqbool Ahmed, the investigative officer, was informed by local residents that the couple was still alive as they were forced into a brick kiln. He has made more than 40 arrests in connection to this heinous incident.
Joseph Francis, a prominent religious minority activist, described the twin murders as “an act of sheer barbarism.” Francis, activists and members of the Christian minority joined in a candlelight vigil organised in the memory of the slain couple in the capital, Islamabad, to silently protest and demand for justice.
Francis, whose activism supports those accused of blasphemy, demanded that the government organize a judicial commission to thoroughly investigate the allegations connected to the murder and bring the perpetrators to justice. Also the head of Pakistan’s Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, Francis pointed out that while falsely accusing Christians of blasphemy has become praxis in Pakistan, the accused are often acquitted. This impunity, he believes, is why a string of such attacks are on the rise lately.
In October, a teacher from the Farooqi Girl’s High School in Lahore was accused and arrested for blaspheming the Prophet – a charge that warrants death, according to the orthodox Islamic law which Pakistan follows. Just less than a month ago, a Pakistani guard shot and injured a mentally challenged septuagenarian Briton who is now on death row in prison for the same reason, although given the mental state of the accused, the charge is highly debatable. While Ahmadis (fellow Muslims), Hindus and Christians are targeted in such attacks, mainstream Muslims are not spared either. Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the Pakistan-occupied state of Punjab, set up a trio to form a committee responsible for investigating the murders and passed orders for police to beef up security in Christian neighborhoods.
Even political figures in Pakistan are prone to such violent vigilante acts, as evidenced by separate attacks on Pakistan’s federal minorities minister and the provincial governor of Punjab in 2011. Publicly voicing their opposition against Pakistan’s rigid blasphemy laws, used to convict Asia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan sentenced to death, cost them their lives. The mother of five has spent over four years in jail following her arrest on charges of blasphemy during an argument with co-workers at a fruit farm. Her lawyers are due to file an appeal against the conviction in the Supreme Court, but even their safety is not guaranteed. In May 2014, a leading human rights lawyer was shot dead for consenting to defend a Muslim university teacher against blasphemy – an issue Pakistani officials and politicians refuse to discuss, citing the dangers involved in it.
While the blasphemy laws in Pakistani are clearly being used to exact vendettas over issues concerning politics, money or property, the lack of public support against it is alarming. For the slain couple in Pakistan who were meted a death sentence they did not deserve based solely on the flimsy accusations circulating locally, desecrating the Quran would have been the farthest on their minds. It is a cause of concern for many human rights organizations and increased exploitation of these laws must be curbed to protect the minorities who have the most to lose in this failing war against bigotry.
By Rathan Paul Harshavardan
Photo by Shahzeb Younas – Flickr License