IN PAKISTAN, 224 Christians have been victims of the blasphemy law since the law’s passage in 1986. That is the figure presented by Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of Pakistan.
Although the legal case against Asia Bibi finally came to a positive resolution Jan. 29, 2019, between 1990 and 2017 23 Christians were killed after being accused of blasphemy; the Commission has documented a further 25 cases of Christians currently on trial.
Specifically, there are two paragraphs of Section 295 of the Pakistani penal code (paragraphs B and C) that can be understood as comprising the “anti-blasphemy law.” Section 295B stipulates a life sentence for anyone who desecrates the Koran, while insulting the Prophet Muhammed carries the death sentence under Section 295C.
“The anti-blasphemy law is a powerful tool that fundamentalists can wield to the detriment of minorities and is often misused as a means for personal revenge,” Chaudhry said, adding that “when charges are brought against Christians, the entire community suffers the consequences.”
This is exactly what happened in March of 2013 in Joseph Colony, a Christian district in Lahore, after a young Christian, Sawan Masih, was accused of having insulted Muhammad. “On March 9, after Friday prayers, a mob of 3000 Muslims burned down the entire district, destroying almost 300 houses and two churches,” Father Emmanuel Yousaf, NCJP president, said. The district has in the meantime been rebuilt and returned to its Christian residents thanks to funding from the government.
While the 83 instigators of the arson attack have all been released, Sawan Masih was sentenced to death in 2014 and he is still waiting for appeal proceedings to be held. “The hearings are constantly being postponed,” his attorney Tahir Bashir explained. The last hearing was scheduled for Jan. 28, but the judge did not appear. A new court date has now been set for Feb. 28.
Just as was the case for Asia Bibi, there are a lot of irregularities in Sawan’s case. The charges against him were brought by one of his Muslim friends, Shahid Imran, following an argument between the two men. Only two days later, two witnesses appeared who had not even been present at the time Muhammed was allegedly insulted. “The charges against Sawan are being exploited,” Father Yousaf said; “The true motivation is an attempt to drive Christians out of this city district. It has become very popular because it lies very close to the steel factories.”
In the meantime, Sawan’s wife Sobia is raising their three children all by herself. “I don’t know why they have accused my husband,” she said. “I just know that the man who brought charges against him was a friend of his with whom he had quarreled. Sawan is innocent!”
—Maria Lozano & Marta Petrosillo