A Muslim mob pelted a church with stones in Gujrat, Pakistan, and chanted slogans to burn and kill Christians after the church had circulated a poster which referred to a late pastor as a “rasool” (apostle), a term Muslims commonly use to refer to Muhammad. The mob deemed this an act of “blasphemy”. If it were not for police intervention the church would have been burned down.
In the immediate aftermath of this August 2015 attack, a complaint was registered against 15 Christians and one Muslim (who printed the posters) under anti-terrorism charges: displaying and publishing written material that is threatening, abusive and insulting, and instigating sectarian hatred and hurting religious sentiment. The police not only raided the homes of the accused but also harassed their relatives, including women and children. The area was tense and Christians were scared.
The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) took up the case. In June 2016, seven of the 16, including the Muslim, subsequently went on trial in the Anti-Terrorism Court in Gujranwala. Five Christians were acquitted. However, the pastor of the church, Aftab Gill, and Hajaj Bin Yousaf, the Muslim who printed the posters, were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Both are appealing their convictions.
This is one of 159 cases in which CLAAS, with ongoing support from Barnabas Fund, has provided free legal aid between 1 September 2015 and 31 September 2016. CLAAS also accommodated 131 Christians in safe houses that Barnabas Fund helped build and now continues to support. CLAAS deals with many cases of kidnap of women and girls followed by forcible conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim.
Legal representation is also provided for Christians accused under the country’s notorious “blasphemy laws”. Joseph Francis, National Director for CLAAS, explains, “The blasphemy law continues to promote religious intolerance and hatred against Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. Several Christians and people of other faiths are in prison and awaiting justice. There were many victims of false accusation by those bearing grudges.” He added that in most of the blasphemy cases the investigator displayed a prejudiced attitude.
The ramifications of a Christian being accused of blasphemy are huge and many. If found guilty, the desecration of the Quran carries a punishment of life imprisonment, whilst the defiling of Muhammad’s name in punishable by death. The accused, together with their family, local Christian community and legal team, also stand at serious risk of vigilante violence. Even in prison they usually have to be held in solitary confinement for their own protection. This danger remains even if they are acquitted or the charges are dropped, with zealous Muslims seeking to please Allah by killing the blasphemer, especially if they believe the name of Muhammad has been defiled. This means that anyone accused under the laws has to leave their neighbourhood forever.
In this Muslim-majority country, the majority of people charged or convicted under the laws are Muslim, but Christians and other religious minorities are disproportionately targeted. Judges in the lower courts also tend to place more weight on the word of a Muslim accuser than on the Christian defendant, in line with sharia law, thus making Christians and other non-Muslims more vulnerable when accused. Muslims accused of “blasphemy” can also face mob violence from other Muslims if they come from an Islamic sect different from the majority of their community.
No one has yet been executed in Pakistan for blasphemy but a number are on death row. This includes Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman.
CLAAS’s intervention does not guarantee success. But, as Shafaquat Gill, one of the five Christians acquitted in the Gujrat case, said, that with CLAAS being involved, “My hope to get released was higher.” Unitan Fazal, who was also freed, later visited CLAAS’s offices with his wife “to express his gratitude for the tireless efforts of CLAAS to provide free legal aid and shelter to his wife, three children and five close relatives whose lives were under threat”. Unitan’s family stayed at one of CLAAS’s safe houses for two months.
Joseph Francis continues, “On behalf of the entire team at CLAAS, I want to thank Barnabas Fund for its continuous commitment in supporting CLAAS activities to promote human rights and legal justice for persecuted Christians in Pakistan. The activities supported through Barnabas Fund have enabled us to widen our support system and have won us acknowledgement on national and international levels.”