Sunday 22 September 2019

Pakistan Christians live in fear amid protests over Bibi

Islamists' death calls continue as Bibi prevented from leaving

Protest: A hardline Islamist calls for the death of Asia Bibi
Protest: A hardline Islamist calls for the death of Asia Bibi

Ben Farmer

When furious protesters gathered around Pakistan late last month in the wake of Asia Bibi's acquittal for blasphemy, a senior police officer visited the Islamabad slum of France Colony. It might be best, the policeman advised, if the mainly Christian residents closed their shops, went home and laid low in case there was trouble.

As the nationwide protests brought the country to a halt for three days, the slum's new church was closed and services cancelled, while the congregation warily watched the demonstrations unfold.

More than a fortnight after Asia Bibi, a Catholic farmhand, was acquitted of defaming the prophet Muhammad, she is still hiding in legal limbo, awaiting asylum in the West. Her case also hangs uncomfortably over the country's Christians.

The violent reaction to a supreme court ruling to free the mother of five has again highlighted the country's harsh blasphemy laws, but has also reminded many of Pakistan's Christians how vulnerable they are.

"We live under fear, the whole country is under tension," said Younis Masih, a 61-year-old retired soldier and member of the slum's Presbyterian Church. "People are afraid and anything can happen in this situation."

Around three million Christians live in Pakistan, a country which is more than 96pc Muslim.

When Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, set out his vision he declared citizens "may belong to any religion, caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state".

Yet, seven decades on, the country has become more Islamicised, and Christians and other religious minorities face discrimination by society and attacks by extremist militants. Prejudice often locks them in poverty.

In January, the US State Department placed Pakistan on a special watch list for "severe violations of religious freedom".

Attacks on churches by militant groups such as Isil have killed scores of people. At the same time, in a country where insulting Islam is an incendiary accusation that can quickly provoke mob violence, the country's blasphemy laws are being used to suppress religious minorities, human rights groups claim. So far, the anger of the hardline religious protesters over Asia Bibi's acquittal has been directed at the authorities, rather than the Christian community.

But protests are unpredictable and a feeling of fear and helplessness hangs over the colony, said a 69-year-old church elder, also called Younis Masih.

"There's no political backing here, no Christian leaders here. They feel isolated and weak and prefer not to talk about such issues," he said.

"The government protects us, but blasphemy is such a sensitive issue we feel weak and in fear. People are helpless, they don't have any other option, but thank God this time the loss is not bigger. There have been protests, but they have been against judges and the government, not against Christians."

Asia Bibi's case has hung over Pakistan's Christians for nearly a decade.

In the summer of 2009 she was working in a Punjab field when she quarrelled with two Muslim colleagues after they refused to drink from a cup she had touched.

The women told a local mullah she had committed blasphemy and Mrs Bibi was rounded up by villagers.

She denied the charge, but after a year in jail she was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Her supporters said the case was a typical example of spurious blasphemy accusations being used to settle scores. But as her appeal has languished in the courts, it has galvanised hardliners and divided Pakistan.

Shortly after her conviction, Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, was murdered for speaking out in her support and calling for reform of the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri, his killer, was executed, but has become a hero to some, with a large shrine dedicated to him on the outskirts of Islamabad.

A party founded by Qadri's supporters took two million votes at the general election this year. Under a deal to halt protests earlier this month, Imran Khan agreed to allow a petition to review Ms Bibi's acquittal. Until that is heard, she cannot leave the country.

"The tension has increased," said Mr Masih. "The reason is very clearly that this case of Asia Bibi is so much highlighted in the media."

Mr Masih said during his 18 years in the army there was no discrimination.

"We used to eat from the same table," he explained. He hopes that the country could one day return to that state.

In the meantime the people of France Colony just want the Asia Bibi case to go away, said another member of the church who declined to be named.

"We pray that it is dealt with with peace and harmony and we can get rid of this issue," they said.

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