Picture Credit: ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Christians are being persecuted in Pakistan

Blasphemy laws are tools of oppression

Artillery Row

It was August 2009 in the Punjab district of Pakistan and a Christian couple, Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, had been caught up in rioting in the town of Gojra, where they lived with their family. Another family had been accused of desecrating the Quran, prompting a mob to attack the local Christian community. Many were forced to flee. Shagufta’s youngest brother still recalls the pleasure he saw on the faces of the rioters as they shouted anti-Christian slogans, torched Christian homes, and burned six Christians alive. 

Violent mobs demand punishment

Unfortunately, these incidents are far from isolated. Just four years later, in July 2013, Shagufta and Shafqat were living a happy, relatively normal life with their four children, when they were suddenly arrested on charges of blasphemy. Speaking to me from an undisclosed location in Europe where they have been granted asylum, the couple and their eldest son joined me for their first English-language interview since their release, following seven harrowing years on death row. 

Christians are estimated to make up between 1.27 and 1.9 per cent of Pakistan’s population (2017 census/ NGO Open Doors). Frequently the victims of abuse, discrimination and violence, they are treated as “second-class citizens”, and face the ever-present threat of being falsely accused of “blasphemy”. 

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) reported 732 blasphemy-related incidents across 41 countries between 2014 and 2018. Four of the 41 countries accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all reported incidents of mob activity — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Egypt. 

According to the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, at least 1,855 people in Pakistan have been accused under offences relating to religion — mostly blasphemy laws — between 1987 and 2021, but the highest number of accusations were issued in 2020.  

In Pakistan, an individual accused of blasphemy is never safe from violence. As USCIRF reports, those accused are a target for mob violence at every stage of a blasphemy proceeding; starting from the initial spreading of rumours surrounding the incident, through to their arrest, trial, incarceration, and even after they are acquitted.  

Family, lawyers, judges, and the faith community at large become targets by association. Violent mobs demand punishment, and there is a real possibility that those accused will be killed in state custody, by prison guards or other inmates. 

It is in this atmosphere of perpetual threat that, on 29 April 2021, a resolution was adopted by the European Parliament, calling out the incompatibility of Pakistan’s treatment of accused blasphemers with the international human rights agreements that the country has signed. It notes with concern that “several dozen” individuals – of multiple faiths – are currently incarcerated on such charges, while several others have been murdered as a result of mob violence.  

This resolution intended to put political pressure on Pakistan over the particularly egregious case of Shagufta and Shafqat, and ultimately helped to secure their release. Yet behind the good news of their fight for freedom, there are many unnamed, unreported, and unknown Christians facing persecution and even death, every day around the world. 

“That was the doomsday of our lives,” the husband, Shafqat, told me. Their son recalls, “When my parents were arrested, I was very young. My brother and sister were also very young. We had never seen such a large number of police officers, so we got very scared”.  

First, they arrested his mother, Shagufta, and later his father, who uses a wheelchair because he is paralyzed from the waist down. “About 20 policemen surrounded him. They hit him with the butts of their guns. They beat him badly, and asked him to confess to blasphemy.” 

A complaint had been lodged against the couple at the police station in Gojra, by a man claiming to have received a text message calling Mohammed a dog. The police and the complainant collected questionable evidence linking the phone to Shagufta. 

More than one quarter (27 per cent) of all recorded incidents worldwide concerned alleged blasphemous speech posted on social media platforms. 

“There were many police officers. A big crowd of Muslim people had also gathered to witness the arrest”, Shagufta recalled, “We were wondering what had happened.  The children were crying. My husband was also crying in his wheelchair. My old father was witnessing it. We didn’t know what to do.” 

The couple were badly mistreated after their arrest. Shafqat confessed under pressure, after officers threatened to molest, torture, strip his wife, and parade her through the streets if he resisted. 

It was a plausible threat.  

Under these circumstances, a fair trial is impossible

Just two years later, in 2015, according to USCRIF, three Pakistani Christians were similarly accused of blasphemy, dragged from their homes and beaten by a mob. Their faces were painted black, and they were paraded around the village on the backs of donkeys. On another occasion, in 2018, a man was accused of sharing a blasphemous image of someone stepping on a mosque on Facebook Messenger. A mob demanded his hanging, and threatened to burn down his village. When cans of petrol were thrown onto homes, 800 Christians were forced to flee.  

Threats of serious mob violence create such social pressure that, according to another report, one 15-year-old boy cut off his own hand with a grass cutting machine after accidentally blaspheming, by raising his hand when a cleric asked “who among you doesn’t believe in the teaching of the Holy Prophet?”. USCRIF notes that this extreme act of self-harm may very well have prevented him from being murdered by a mob.  

And so, Shafqat confessed despite his innocence. The couple were charged in December 2013, and pleaded not guilty, arguing that they had been framed by a vindictive neighbour with whom they had a dispute several months earlier.  

Speaking to me from Delhi, Director of Advocacy Asia for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, Tehmina Arora, said that “False complaints are extremely common in Pakistan. Many of the clients, allied lawyers, and human rights groups on the ground that we have spoken to, would say that this is a very common tool to settle petty scores.”

During the trial, a crowd assembled with banners and posters calling for Shagufta to be sentenced to death. Those defending the couple received death threats. Shagufta’s younger brother — who has himself been granted asylum in another European country — recalled that radical Muslims ran into the courtroom with ash on their faces, urging the judge to sentence the couple to death. The couple’s family, old and young alike, faced upheaval and persecution in the wake of the accusations, eventually fleeing to safety in Europe. 

The trial lasted over nine months, before Shagufta and Shafqat were sentenced to death, and sent to separate prisons where they were kept in isolation, due to the risk posed by other inmates. During this time, they were treated inhumanely. Shafqat, who relies on assistance to move, was given inadequate medical treatment, developed bedsores, and tells me he would often fall into a coma. He recalls how he slept on the floor, without a mattress, for eight years, deprived of adequate nutrition and medical care. 

Shagufta told the organisation Aid to the Church in Need that she was told several times that if she converted to Islam her sentence would be lessened, from death to life in prison.  

During this time, their children stayed with relatives, moving from home to home. Their son recalls that they “would often cry” and “couldn’t live in one place. We couldn’t study for the first three years. We kept moving from one place to another …We were scared … people would say we would be killed.”

Shagufta recalls her experience of imprisonment. “In June and July, there was a heat wave”, she remembers, “It seemed as if it was the fire of hell. I would be allowed to be in the corridor for about an hour and then they’d lock me back in the cell. I used to pray when I was tense and worried, but I also got diseases. I got stomach ailments, blood pressure, diabetes.”.

She tells me Asia Bibi was in the same prison, and jail authorities allowed them to meet for prayers during Christmas. 

Bibi’s case is perhaps the best-known outside of Pakistan. Bibi, a Christian, was accused of blasphemy after a neighbour saw her drinking from the same cup as her Muslim colleagues. A mob came to her house, beat her and her family, before she was arrested by police, and ultimately sentenced to death. Her case serves as a perfect illustration of the ubiquitous threatening atmosphere hanging over Christians in Pakistan, and anyone who dare defend them. 

Her death sentence was eventually overturned by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Nonetheless, in defending her, high profile politician Shahbaz Bhatti, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were murdered in 2011. Even after her acquittal she remained in custody for her own safety. This is not uncommon. In 2014, a lawyer, Rachid Rehman, was gunned down in his office for defending an academic who had been charged with blasphemy. 

Shagufta and Shafqat filed an appeal at the Lahore High Court in 2014, represented by lawyer Saif Ul Malook and supported by ADF International. After eight long years incarcerated, and several postponed hearings, they were finally acquitted in June 2021, little over a month after the EU resolution called for their release.  

Blasphemy laws are incompatible with human rights

The litany of mistakes in the judicial process are staggering. The court found that the delay in filing the report raised doubts of its veracity, that electronic evidence was not properly authenticated, that the cross examination of those who claimed to have sold the phone’s SIM card to the couple was contradictory and unreliable, that the confession was inadmissible because it was recorded in English, a language the couple did not understand, and that the confession was given under duress.  

Tehmina Arora believes the reason for the conviction, on such flimsy evidence, was fear:

Very often what we have seen in Pakistan is that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on lawyers and the judges who adjudicate these cases. We know of several cases where people have been killed right there in the courtroom. So, very often judges like to just pass on these cases. They do not want to really look at the evidence before them and just hope that these cases will get out of their court.

Under these circumstances, a fair trial is impossible. The European resolution, credited with hastening their release, raises concerns that the judicial procedures in blasphemy cases are “highly flawed”, that they require low standards of evidence, and that allegations are accepted uncritically, presuming guilt rather than innocence.  

The resolution notes that lawyers, police, prosecutors, and judges, are prevented from carrying out their jobs impartially and free of fear, making them reluctant to exonerate the accused. 

What’s worse, the situation is exacerbated by the Pakistani Government. In 2020, after a schoolteacher was beheaded in Paris, following false accusations that he showed a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed to his class, the French government defended the right of its citizens to freedom of expression. 

In contrast, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded by inciting anti-French protests and riots internationally, instituting a boycott, and accusing President Macron of Islamophobia. France advised its citizens to temporarily leave Pakistan, and in April 2021, one member of Pakistan’s ruling party tabled a resolution demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador. 

The mere existence of blasphemy laws, and the attitude of the Pakistani government, creates an atmosphere that legitimises, and even incites, violence against those accused of blasphemy. 

The situation this creates for Christians in Pakistan is intolerable. Success, in cases like those of Shagufta and Shafqat and Asia Bibi, is partly due to the intensity of pressure and international attention forcing the hand of the Government of Pakistan. Yet these cases do not receive much attention in the West. Tehmina Arora told me, “I think one of the primary reasons Christian persecution does not receive the attention it truly deserves is because there is still a perception of Christians being a very privileged community largely living in the West. However, data would suggest that is really not true. The Christian faith has really grown in the global south.”

Pew Research in 2018 found that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. Shagufta and Shafqat are — now — blessed exceptions to the rule. During their imprisonment, they remained strong in their faith. Shafqat recalls how he would “often worship God and pray to Him asking for strength” and that “whenever I think of those days, I start crying. I thank God for my release”.  

During that time, Shagufta told herself “Shagufta, God has heard your prayers. He would ensure that you’re released,” and that she prayed “just as you have freed Asia (Bibi), please release me from prison”. 

But even after the day of their acquittal finally arrived, they remained in custody as extremists across the country voiced death threats against them. It became clear they would have to leave the country. ADF International assisted with political negotiations and a plan was agreed to bring them to a European country that would grant them asylum.  

In the midst of the pandemic, they were reunited with each other and their children, and covertly flown to Europe, accompanied by ADF International lawyer Jean-Paul Van De Walle. He told me that he would never forget the image of them on the plane. “What really struck me”, Jean-Paul said, “was that although they were wearing masks, I could see the smile and happiness on their faces.”

Many continue to languish in prisons across the globe

Despite this success, Tehmina Arora stresses the importance of not just advocating for those who remain on death row, but tackling the root causes of the issues, namely, the blasphemy laws which are incompatible with human rights. “The danger is that because these laws protect one group’s religious feelings, they result in the criminalisation of the free speech and religious practice of others. Moreover, they are vague, subjective, and arbitrarily enforced.”

Shagufta and Shafqat committed no crime, but even if they had sent that text message, as Tehmina Arora asks, “Should you be put on death row simply for sending a text message, for sharing an opinion about your faith?” 

Towards the end of our interview, Shagufta made a plea: “In Pakistan, many Christians are being persecuted. Section 295(c) of the Penal Code should be abolished. And those in jail on charges under this section should be released.” International pressure has been shown to be effective, and as Pakistan comes up for review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Tehmina Arora notes that this is an opportune time for further pressure to be applied.  

Many continue to languish in prisons across the globe, accused of blasphemy, and the broader atmosphere of oppression and persecution deserves the full attention of the West. In Europe, we experience sporadic atrocities, of teachers murdered, or cartoonists gunned down, because their words, actions or work is regarded as blasphemous according to Islam.  For many Christians across the globe, however, this kind of religiously-motivated violence is a feature of daily life. 

After our interview, the couple recited the Psalm that carried them through the darkness: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”

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