A month since Asia Bibi’s acquittal, the local Christian community feels increasingly insecure
A month has passed since Asia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court after the blasphemy charges against her were removed.
However, the state’s failure to establish its writ over the radical Islamist protesters, led by the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), in the immediate aftermath of the apex court’s verdict meant that the Christian community feels increasingly vulnerable.
Despite the Supreme Court deeming allegations against the Christian woman Asia Bibi to be false, the TLP leadership continues to call for her head.
This is why the state’s agreement with the TLP was deemed a surrender by the critics, given that putting Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List was one of the conditions, in addition to ridding the Islamist party of any responsibility for destruction of property or issuing of death threats to the likes of the Army Chief or the Supreme Court judges.
While the state later backtracked on its agreements, and even initiated a crackdown on the TLP leadership ahead of the November 25 protest call, resulting in the threat of party chief Khadim Rizvi, there wasn’t sufficient insurance for the religious minorities.
The Christian community, which has so often borne the brunt of religiously charged mobs – Asia Bibi’s case being a prominent example – is fearing for their wellbeing.
In the past decade alone there have been scores of incidents of Islamist violence against the Christian community.
In August 2009, Christian houses were burnt in Gojra leaving at least eight dead. A similar horror was witnessed in Lahore’s Joseph colony in April 2013, where over a hundred houses belonging to the Christian community were torched. In November 2014, a Christian couple was burnt alive in Kot Radha Kishan.
Incidents of mob violence against the Christian community – similar to other religious minorities – emanates from false accusations of blasphemy or desecration of the Islamic scriptures.
Additionally, the community has often had to bear the brunt of anti-Islam actions in the West. In September 2012, following the release of Innocence of Muslims, a mob torched a church and a Christian school in Mardan, in addition to physically assaulting members of the Christian clergy.
On November 15, the Inspector General of Police in Punjab issued a threat alert in the province, with the Christian community shortlisted as a potential target.
The notice was issued a week after Asia Bibi had been released from jail, with false reports that she had left the country circulating in the media before being rectified.
Following Asia Bibi’s release TLP’s goons have been hunting door to door to find her and eliminate her in complete defiance of the Supreme Court’s verdict in her favour.
That, and with Christmas approaching, has meant that the community has been on high alert.
“The truth is that whenever any such matter occurs, the entire community is left feeling threatened,” says journalist and interfaith peace activist Marian Sharaf Joseph.
“I have come across some community members from vulnerable areas, who said that on the day of the verdict announcement and in its aftermath, they have had random people forcing them to have their national identity cards checked.
“Nothing could be more fearsome than this to have your identity questioned, exploited and under threat. With the season of Christmas coming up, and having no clear picture as to what the actual situation is, fear prevails.”
‘Free of Pakistan’
“First that it was quite courageous for the SC to acquit her. Justice Khosa even wrote that speaking against another religion should be blasphemy too, if we are to be consistent. This is indeed a first where the courts are talking about protection of other religions in Pakistan,” notes Yaqoob Bangash a historian of Modern South Asia and author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-1955.
“Secondly, the acquittal of Asia puts the government in a quandary. She is technically free but in fact under greater threat on the streets of Pakistan than she was in the jail cell. The state, clearly, is unable to provide her with the security she, and her family needs. Therefore the only way is for her to leave the country, but the state seems unwilling to allow it for the moment. So she is free, but not really. Perhaps existentially she will only be ‘free’ when ‘free’ of Pakistan, which is sad since it puts a question mark on the ability of the state to protect its citizens.
“Thirdly, it creates an odd situation for Christians, and other minorities, in the country. It shows to them that even if the courts have exonerated a person, yet there are elements in the population who want blood, and not just of Asia but anyone associated with her. This raises serious questions about citizenship, rights and quite simply life and existence.”
‘Try TLP leaders for treason’
“We heard that the government cracked down on the people who were involved in the mob attacks. About this I can say that this crackdown was the need of the time. The people ought to know that they should not go about destroying government and private property,” says Karachi-based Father Arif Habib.
Also read: The rise and rise of TLP
“I believe they are those people who come out for daily wages, were given the wages of the day and were hired to do all this. I hope that they have learnt a lesson as the TLP leadership denied that they were shown the clips from the TV channels as well as the social media that these people are not ours. So it is very clear that they will not go out of their way to get them freed. Let the law take its course.”
“Our Lord Jesus Christ has this to say: ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.’ (Mark 9:42) The followers of Christ are the most peaceful people in the world. Being more peaceful and this is why we see why so many Pakistanis are moving towards the West which is Christian. Therefore I propose that the TLP leaders be arrested and tried for treason.’
Despite the evident threat, attendances at local churches haven’t dwindled. On Wednesday, November 28, the famous Wednesday Prayer Meeting near Bahar Colony was brimming over with attendees.
However, the local Christian community continues to express concerns with regards to their interrogations at check-posts. This is especially true for the low-income members of the community, who cannot escape their identity cards being additionally scrutinised.
Similarly, there are reports that radical Islamist groups are hiring mobs to target the Christian community. Insiders reveal that in addition to the religiously charged Islamists who volunteer to be a part of violent protests, there are agitators on hire who can carry out various acts to intimidate members of the targeted community.
Even so, the greatest threat comes from terror groups, especially around the festive season.
Bomb attacks targeting churches has been a gory offshoot of the rise of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan. In recent years, Peshawar’s All Saints Church (Sep 2013) and churches in Lahore’s Youhanabad area (Mar 2015) have been prominent examples of the extent of violence that the Christian community has had to face at the hands of jihadist groups like the Pakistani Taliban and their offshoots.
In recent years, the Pakistani Taliban have provided foot soldiers for the Islamic State’s (ISIS) Khorasan faction ISKP, with these groups working in tandem to target the Christian community frequently on and around their festivals.
The Easter Day carnage at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in March 2016 is among the most horrific of these. And so is the bombing of Quetta’s Bethel Memorial Methodist Church a week before last Christmas, which was claimed by the ISKP.
The attack saw a rise in target killings of Christians in Balochistan province, with a Christian family being killed on Easter Monday on the city’s Shah Zaman Road this April, two weeks before two Christians were gunned down in Quetta’s Esa Nagri area.
‘Hunted on Quetta streets’
“Last year’s church bombing created an atmosphere of fear for the local Christian when it came to attending the church. But the roadside killings has meant that we have been hunted on the city streets,” said Pastor Simon Bashir of Quetta’s Bethel Memorial Methodist Church.
“We have been promised an increase in check-posts, which is yet to be fulfilled. Instead of providing us security, the security forces ask us to remain low profile so as to not be easily targeted,” he added.
Pastor Simon Bashir, who has a Masters in Islamic Studies from Balochistan University, says that the radical mobs threatening violence against religious minorities are misrepresenting Islam.
“Islam does not preach taking law into one’s own hands. Our friends who claim to represent their religion, should embrace love and peace,” he said.
The author is a Lahore-based journalist. He is a correspondent for The Diplomat, and The Asia Times and contributes to various Pakistani and international publications. He tweets @khuldune