Pakistani Christian Leader Calls Blasphemy Laws ‘A License to Kill’ After Couple Is Beaten, Burned

Patrick Goodenough | November 4, 2014 | 8:00pm EST
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Brick kilns dot the landscape in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (AP Photo, File)

( – Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become a “license to kill Christians,” a Christian leader in the country said after a Muslim mob -- enraged by claims that a Qur’an had been desecrated -- beat and burnt a pregnant mother and her husband to death Tuesday amid cries of “Allah hu Akbar” and “kill infidel Christians.”

The slaying of the couple, brick kiln laborers named as Shahzad and Shama, was the latest in a long series of atrocities carried out by zealous Muslims, often targeting Christians and other minorities accused of blasphemy.

Blasphemy is a capital offense in the world’s second biggest Islamic country – a country which the U.S. State Department has for the past 12 years refused to blacklist for egregious persecution under U.S. religious freedom laws, despite recommendations by a statutory watchdog.

Incited by announcements over mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages, hundreds of Muslims dragged Shahzad and Shama out of a room where they were being held against their will, beat them with clubs, and then burnt them alive in a brick kiln, according to eyewitness accounts given to the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD), a non-profit advocacy group.

Other Christian laborers employed at the kiln in Punjab province fled in fear of their lives.

Earlier, Shama had reportedly burned some papers and items belonging to her recently-deceased father-in-law, and a Muslim co-worker claimed to have found burnt remnants of pages from a Qur’an. LEAD said the eyewitness said the couple had wanted to flee, but their employer claimed they owed him money and detained them in a room, where they were still being held when attacked on Tuesday.

A relative told Pakistani media that the couple were in their early 30s, had three children and that Shama was expecting their fourth.

In response to emailed queries, LEAD director Sardar Mushtaq Gill voiced the hope Wednesday that Western governments would “do more to put pressure on government for the repeal of blasphemy and other discriminatory laws.”

“Really, we are frustrated that outside governments did not put pressure on Islamabad as it should be,” he said.

Gill recalled the recent High Court decision upholding the death sentence of Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Even though foreign governments had raised concerns about the case, Asia’s appeal had been thrown out, he said. It appeared that the pressure applied on the authorities by Muslim clerics and extremists was greater than that applied by Western governments.

Government is 'protecting Islamic extremists'

Under Pakistan’s penal code, a person convicted of insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an faces a death sentence or life imprisonment. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) at least 14 Pakistanis convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row and 19 others serving life sentences.

Muslims frequently take the law into their own hands, attacking the supposed blasphemer. The National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body, recorded at least 51 deaths in such attacks between 1990 and 2012.

“A mere accusation of blasphemy is often enough to put a person and their wider community in danger,” Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Asia Pacific, David Griffiths, said Tuesday. “In this case, a mob appears to have played judge, jury and executioner.”

“Consistent failure by the government to tackle violence in the name of religion has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and excuse them as defense of religious sentiments,” Griffiths said.

Pakistan’s mainstream “Barelvi” Sunni Muslims hold extreme views regarding blasphemy and shari’a. Politicians, either supportive of the blasphemy laws or fearful of angering those who are, have refused to amend or repeal them. Those who have dared to challenge them have themselves been targeted, and in 2011 a liberal Muslim governor and a Christian federal cabinet minister were assassinated over their opposition to the laws.

Statistics compiled by human rights groups show that Christians, Ahmadis and other non-Muslims, who make up just two percent of the population, are disproportionately targeted.

Pakistani Christians protest after hundreds of Muslims burned and looted Christian homes in the city of Gorja in an August 2009 rampage. "Stop killing of innocent Christians," reads the placard. (AP Photo)

Pakistan Christian Congress president Nazir Bhatti described the laws as a “license to kill Christians in Pakistan by hands of Muslims.”

Bhatti said in an email the latest killing had spread a feeling of “insecurity” among Christians.

Christians and other minorities were hounded under the blasphemy laws, while some high-profile Muslims accused of blasphemy were often “walking free on [the] streets” and given police protection, he charged.

Bhatti accused Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party of “protecting Islamic extremists in province of Punjab who attack Christian life and property.”

He appealed to the authorities to apprehend and punish those responsible for the killing, and urged lawmakers who are meant to represent non-Muslim minorities to speak out. (Ten out of 342 seats in the National Assembly are reserved for minorities, filled by appointees of major political parties in proportion to the size of overall vote they attract.)

The Pakistan Christian Post reported that around 40 Muslims had been rounded up.

Pakistan gets a pass, year after year

The USCIRF, an independent statutory body, has called on the State Department every year since 2002 to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for severe religious freedom violations.

The department has overruled the recommendations each year, most recently last July.

Countries listed as CPCs may be targeted with U.S. sanctions or other measures intended to encourage governments to stop violating religious freedom or condoning abuses. Critics of the administration’s failure to designate Pakistan say the U.S. could wield significant leverage, since the country is a major recipient of U.S. aid.

In its most recent annual report, USCIRF cited eight countries it believes should be blacklisted, but are not – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. Of those, it said “Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently desig­nated by the U.S. government as ‘countries of particu­lar concern.’”

The countries that are currently designated are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

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