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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Suicide protest puts focus on blasphemy laws

By Choong Tet Sieu and
Shahid-ur Rehman / ISLAMABAD

IT WAS A PASSIONATE gesture in a land where passions often run high. For Catholics such as Bishop John Joseph, it is a mortal sin to take your own life. But on May 6, the 65-year-old Pakistani clergyman went to the courthouse in the town of Sahiwal, 700 km south of Islamabad, and shot himself in the head.

What drove him to pull the trigger was the court's decision last month that a young member of his Faisalabad diocese, Ayub Masih, must die for sullying the name of the Prophet Muhammad. What prepared him for his desperate act was despair at the increasing abuse of blasphemy laws in mainly Muslim Pakistan. His action was "the only effective answer to the ever-growing violence which surrounds us," the bishop declared in a suicide note that called for the laws to be repealed.

His death has drawn fresh attention to laws introduced in 1986 during the military rule of President Zia ul Haq, and later amended during Nawaz Sharif's first stewardship as prime minister on recommendations by religious courts. Penalties currently range from three years' jail for insulting the holy persons of Islam, to life imprisonment for showing disrespect to the Koran. Anyone who defiles, directly or indirectly, the name of the Prophet faces a death sentence.

Critics say the blasphemy charges are increasingly being used to settle scores and to bludgeon submission from adversaries in land disputes. And Christians, who form about 2% of Pakistan's 140 million population, are among the victims. Most are poor - many hold dirty, lowly paid jobs - but they live on prime sites historically attached to mission schools and churches. Over the past two years, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has reported seizures of Christian-settled lands whose occupants were accused of blasphemy.

Khalid Anwar, Pakistan's minister for law and justice, concedes there is abuse. "There is no doubt that people, for personal reasons, file false cases. And judges are under great pressure not to acquit the accused," he says. Some jurists have even been warned that they and their families will be harmed if defendants are released. The result: convictions based on flimsy evidence. In other cases, human rights advocates point to verdicts driven more by political exigency than by ensuring that justice is done.

To Khalid, "the most painful thing is that the name of Islam is being used to settle personal animosity." Being one of the faithful is no guarantee of protection either. A Muslim doctor embroiled in a property tussle was lynched by attackers who, curiously, learned he burned his Koran but not that it was an accident. The book fell into his fireplace when the physician rose suddenly to accept a delivery. Religious charges are also laid against other minorities. Among them, the Ahmadiya, a sect which has been officially declared non-Muslim. More recently, fundamentalists have been demanding the same classification for Shiites.

No one has yet been hanged under the blasphemy laws, though judges have handed down several death sentences since 1995. One defendant was killed while on bail. Two who were acquitted had to seek asylum abroad. But for Bishop Joseph, the Ayub Masih case was just one too many. Arguing that the complaints were concocted to force Christian families off a village plot, the bishop warned of "astonishing" action unless Ayub's death sentence was revoked. He made good that threat before the verdict was suspended on May 12 pending appeal.

His death is the most dramatic gesture yet in the Christian community's efforts to scrap the blasphemy laws. The Vatican, unable to condemn Bishop Joseph's suicide, prays for his absolution. But will his action bring about "a revolution," as his stand-in, Bishop Ponnie Mendes, predicts? Certainly, it has set off a wave of protests from Karachi to Lahore against discriminatory laws. Moderates fear, however, that positions may be hardening at the extreme ends of the religious spectrum.

While the bishop was being buried, a mob terrorized a Christian district in Faisalabad. The group set fire to houses and looted shops. Angry church leaders now plan to fight back with their own militant organization. Normally fractious hardline Islamic groups are rallying against the repeal campaign. Says Zia-ul Quasmi, leader of the militant Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba: "Nobody forced the Christians to live in Pakistan. If they live here, they have to respect the law of the land."

Minister Khalid knows the controversy is hurting Pakistan. Islamabad has ordered provincial courts to thoroughly investigate complaints before accepting a blasphemy case. Even so, the minister concedes a need to amend the laws. Change may be slow in coming. The Sharif cabinet, already under fire for concessions to the West and for failing to revive the economy, will be reluctant to open up another battlefront.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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