Pakistani Christians Face Extreme Persecution as Churches Burn

Op-Ed by Emily Thompson

In the small town of Jaranwala, Pakistan, a recent disturbing incident has highlighted the volatile nature of blasphemy accusations against Christians. Two Christian brothers became the epicenter of a maelstrom when they were accused of desecrating the Koran. Claims were made that they wrote offensive slogans across its pages using a red pen. Bizarrely, those leveling the allegations also stated that these brothers went as far as to inscribe their names, home addresses, and national identity card numbers in the said act of desecration. The reason for including such easily traceable details remains enigmatic and has raised eyebrows.

The aftermath was both swift and devastating. Incited by these accusations, the local Muslim community, with armed clerics at the helm, embarked on a spree of violence that would mar the town’s history. A mob that residents said consisted of people carrying iron rods, knives and sticks set fire to churches and scores of homes. They set ablaze ancient churches that had stood as hallmarks of the Christian faith in the region, looted and torched Christian residences, and attacked a Christian cemetery. This reign of terror spanned at least ten hours according to eyewitness accounts, leaving countless Christians with no option but to flee their homes, fearing for their lives.

There are some two-and-a-half to three million Christians currently living in Pakistan. For these Christians and minority Shia Muslims in Pakistan, the shadow of blasphemy accusations is an ever-present menace. The legal underpinning for this is found in Pakistan’s penal code, which dictates
penalties for blasphemy ranging from several years of incarceration to the death penalty. These laws, while aiming to preserve the sanctity of religious beliefs, often become tools in personal disputes, and their misuse can lead to devastating consequences for the accused. The weight of this law was amplified in 1990 when the Federal Shari’a Court decreed that blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad should be met with nothing short of execution. While this severe sentence has likely never been officially carried out, the threat looms large.

Unfortunately, these types of serious allegations are often tainted with misinformation and deceit. False accusations of blasphemy are not uncommon and are sometimes wielded as weapons in personal vendettas. These baseless charges can catalyze deadly mob violence as is likely in this recent case. As of 2021, records indicate that 89 individuals accused of blasphemy met extrajudicial deaths at the hands of enraged mobs.

Such incidents underscore the pressing need for a reevaluation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, not only to ensure justice but to safeguard the harmony of its diverse population.

The issue of blasphemy in Pakistan is not merely a religious matter; it’s a powder keg, and clearly can ignite intense and violent reactions. The country, with its deep-rooted Islamic values, places an utmost importance on respecting religious sentiments, particularly those related to Islam. However, such extreme reactions to perceived insults to Islam has become a significant concern – especially among Christians.

Over the years, individuals alleged to have committed blasphemy—be it intentional or inadvertently—have faced harrowing and often dangerous consequences. Such accusations can instantly turn someone into a pariah, alienated from society, and at times, facing threats to their very existence. The immediacy and intensity of these reactions mean that those accused often face mob justice, where enraged groups take matters into their own hands, bypassing legal procedures and meting out extrajudicial punishments. Lynchings are not uncommon.

So far, nearly 160 people have been arrested over the hours-long rampage, but much more needs to be done to discourage repeated acts of violence against Christians. Blasphemy remains one of the most sensitive and perilous topics in Pakistan, but it is the false accusations of this that most endangers Christians. Addressing this issue requires the government to undertake a serious inquiry into understanding the issue and coming up with ways to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

Addressing these concerns requires comprehensive strategies that span from immediate security measures to long-term educational reforms and policy changes. Pakistan can and should consider taking such steps to reassure its Christian population against violence and discourage non-Christians form attacking them.

For starters, Pakistan must review and amend its blasphemy laws to ensure they are not misused or weaponized for personal vendettas. It must also ensure that legal provisions are in place that criminalize incitement to religious violence.

The police force’s capabilities must be strengthened to preemptively detect and respond to threats against minority communities. A good place to start would be to establish special protection units for vulnerable areas where religious minorities reside. Pakistan must ensure the impartiality of law enforcement agencies in religious matters, emphasizing the equal rights of all citizens.

The perpetrators of violence against Christians and other minorities must face swift and impartial justice, and witness protection programs should be set up to ensure victims and witnesses can testify without fear.

Perhaps the most important step towards eradicating anti-Christian violence is to change the education system so that the curricula include teachings on religious tolerance, the history of all religious groups in Pakistan, and the importance of coexistence. It is also a good idea to promote inter religious dialogue sessions in schools and colleges.

Christians should be afforded adequate representation in local and national legislative bodies. Christian leaders must be included in decision-making processes, especially when making decisions that directly affect their communities.

For any strategy to be effective, it must be implemented with genuine intent and commitment from all sectors of society. Pakistan must ensure that the state, civil society, religious institutions, and the general populace work in tandem to create an environment that is safe for all Christians.

Image: Wikipedia

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