Who is the enemy of minorities in Pakistan?

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Blasphemy has become a terror for minorities across Pakistan, a weapon in the hands of extremist groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), promoted by the state. The state often becomes the perpetrator of this tyranny … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

As General Asim Munir, the powerful chief of the Pakistan Army, was visiting a church on Christmas day to show the world how benevolent he was towards minorities whose homes and churches were burnt down by extremist groups, the family of a poor, bicycle repair shop owner in Lahore was helplessly trying to save the man who was recently sentenced to death on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

A little over 100 km away from Lahore, in Jaranwala, scores of Christian families had no time or money, or heart, to celebrate Christmas, their biggest festival. In August this year, eight churches and several homes were attacked and burnt to the ground by religious fanatics under the guise of blasphemy.

Blasphemy has become a terror for minorities across Pakistan, a weapon in the hands of extremist groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), promoted by the state. The state often becomes the perpetrator of this tyranny, like in this case of the hapless bicycle repair shop owner, Ashfaq Masih.

General Asim Munir Chief of Army Staff Pakistan

What did Masih do to deserve the maximum punishment of death? He had, in 2017, repaired a bicycle of a neighbouring shop owner who happened to be a Muslim and was increasingly jealous of the Christian. The Muslim neighbour asked him to waive off the small sum he was charging for the repair. He said as a devotee of Sufis and saints he should not be charged.

Masih said he only worshipped Jesus Christ and asking money for repair had nothing to do with religion. There was nothing blasphemous about the verbal skirmish. The police in its complaint did not mention blasphemy. But there was much more than a petty sum involved–Muhammad Ashfaq, the landlord of the shop run by Masih, and his friend and neighbour, Muammad Naveed, were looking for a chance to punish Manish. It was only when the complainant, Muhammad Ashfaq, in his statement to the police first raised the charges of blasphemy, that the police were only too eager to book Masih under the dreaded charges. He spent five years in prison before a court sentenced him to death.

Statistics tell a damning story. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, there are at least 53 people, mostly minorities, who are in prison on blasphemy charges. Between 1927 and 1986, there were only 14 reported incidents of blasphemy in Pakistan. Between 1986 and 2010, that number rose to 1274. This phenomenal rise in cases of blasphemy was sparked by Pakistan enacting laws that made it easier to settle scores with false accusations. Many of the charges were filed to grab land or to teach a lesson and had nothing to do with religion.

The anti-blasphemy laws were always part of the country’s penal code but it was only during the regime of General Zia-ul Haq that these were made more stronger. Since then, successive governments have only chosen to tighten the law further even after the killing of former Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, on similar charges. Prime Minister Imran Khan went a step further, promoting a rabidly extremist sectarian group known as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan which spearheaded a violent street protest to raise the pitch on blasphemy, leading to the removal of the French Ambassador to Pakistan and then this year, leading a riotous mob to torch churches and Christian homes in Jaranwala. Interim Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government, instead of finding a way to calm down the tempers on blasphemy, chose to expand the draconian law by adding to the list of key followers and kin of the Prophet whose name cannot be defiled.

It is therefore easy to see what General Munir missed to tell the devouts gathered at the Rawalpindi church on Christmas day when he said that `enemy` was sowing the seeds of division in the name of religion. He was right but a little miserly with the truth– That enemy is the state of Pakistan.

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