Beleaguered Pakistani Christians Face First Blasphemy Case of 2018
Rabia Mehmood writes about the structural discrimination and violence against minority Christian community in Pakistan
A Christian teenager was forced to turning himself in to police for “committing blasphemy” through a Facebook post in Lahore on February 20.
Patras Masih is from Shahdara, a neighborhood in northern Lahore. A few hundred Christian families are residents of Shahdara, along with Patras’ immediate family that includes his parents and three siblings. As tensions escalated and the fear of Muslim mobs attacking local Christians was about to turn real, many families locked up their homes and fled.
Masih allegedly posted a blasphemous photo on a Facebook group called Paglon Ki Basti (a settlement of the insane).The group had both Muslim and non-Muslim members. A man named Qari Awais applied for a case of 295 C to be filed against Patras, who had disappeared when the story of his blasphemous act had reached him. However, threats from complainants got louder with the push of extremist Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasulallah supporters. Intervention of Christian elders convinced Patras’s family to cooperate with the authorities.
Patras’ arrest to appease local anger is oddly considered a success of sorts, because the “peace” of the neighborhood was not disrupted. Nobody will lose sleep over the possibility that a Christian youth, and his family’s future are clearly endangered. Patras Masih is a working class teenager, who did not finish school. He is a sanitary worker and so are his brother and father. A profession that is, almost exclusively, reserved for low-income Christians. The mainstream Muslim population refers to Christian sanitary workers with derogatory titles. It is a shame that the majority of blasphemy complaints and attacks target the least privileged Christians, as if the violence of poverty itself was not cruel enough.
Minorities, Technology and Freedom of Expression In the last two years, three Christian men – Nabeel Masih, Usman Masih and Nadeem James – were charged with blasphemy based on their Facebook and Whatsapp posts. James was given death sentence in 2017. In 2014, a Christian couple in Punjab province was sentenced to death for sending text messages that allegedly insulted Islam. In all these cases, even the minimal access to technology was used against these working class, disempowered Pakistanis who were already living on the margins of social and political system. In 2017, the government reinforced messages against online blasphemous content. Since then a national campaign has been orchestrated mainly to crush dissenting online voices. But these steps have deepened paranoia over blasphemy; and fed into the prevailing bigotry through public service messages in print and electronic media. In short, the state has ensured that the structural violence against this downtrodden community extends to the digital spaces. Hostilities of the offline world have transitioned into the online conversations. For Pakistani minorities making a phone call, liking a post, sharing a photo, taking a selfie, messaging through WhatsApp or sending a text message – all means of communication and self-expression are not ‘free’. Whatever space minorities occupy in Pakistan, it is systematically being marked with violence.
Insecure in their Own Neighborhoods Many Christians in Lahore have experienced communal violence in the recent past. For some fleeing has been the ‘safe’ option as their homes are included in the list of spaces unsafe for them. I have been thinking of two of the most brutal anti-Christian incidents, which caused displacement in recent years. Both took place during March. A Muslim mob attacked Joseph Colony in March 2013, on suspicions of one man’s alleged blasphemy; and the twin suicide bombings of two churches in Youhanabad – a Christian dominated neighborhood – took place in March 2015. These brutalities and the state response bred enough fear in the community that whoever could leave has migrated abroad. In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Youhanabad attacks, two Muslim men were killed by the mob during protests. The Punjab police carried out a months’ long crackdown and detained hundreds of Christians, out of which 43 were charged with murder. Two of them, Andreas Masih and Usman Shaukat died in prison because of deteriorating health.
Collective trauma The Christian community in the Punjab province continues to suffer from collective trauma. The 2005 attacks in Sangla Hill and Islamabad churches; and gutted houses of Gojra in 2009 are made worse by Aasia Bibi’s never ending prison sentence. It is a perverse situation. Patras Masih is in jail, his family can be relocated. This means that the rest of their community in Shahdara and elsewhere can live with a semblance of stability. Because their homes will not be torched by angry mobs incited by clerics. It is difficult to call it a life, let alone ‘living.’