A year has now passed since the killing of a group of Christians at Gojra in the province of Punjab in Pakistan, on August 1 2009. Eight people were burnt alive and many others had their houses destroyed and lost all their possessions.
Although there have been many other attacks on the Christian community in Pakistan, before – and sadly also since – the events at Gojra have somehow become a defining moment for the image of the nation of Pakistan and the concerns of the international community.
In the days and weeks after the incident at Gojra many international church leaders expressed their deep concern for the Pakistani Christian community. Working closely with colleagues in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of NIFCON (the Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns) acted as one of the sponsors of a petition, signed by over 2000 people, both Christian and Muslim, from twenty countries around the world, including Pakistan itself, asking for change in the blasphemy legislation of Pakistan.
The signatures of the online petition were presented to the Pakistan High Commissioner in London on Tuesday 8 September. The petition followed on a statement made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, a few days after the attack in Gojra, condemning attacks on Christians in Pakistan. On 18 September 2009 the Archbishop of Canterbury met with the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and spoke of his deep concern for Christians in Pakistan, particularly in the light of recent incidents. Following on from this, in December 2009 the Archbishop sent a delegation at the invitation of the government of Pakistan, which visited Islamabad, Lahore and Gojra.
Now, exactly a year after the attack in Gojra, the staff of NIFCON have produced this note to mark the anniversary of the incident, and also to continue to raise awareness of what we believe is a major underlying cause of such attacks on Christians in Pakistan.
Christians make up 1.6% of the total population of Pakistan according to the government’s statistics; however, Christians themselves insist that they constitute at least 6% of the total, predominantly Muslim population, of 160 million people. Gojra, which is located in the Toba Tek Singh District of Punjab, has a relatively high number of Christians. It has long been a headquarters of the Church of Pakistan. However the neighbouring district of Jhang is the birthplace and headquarters of Sipah-i-Sahaba and Lashkar-i Jhangvi, extremist and militant organizations which have had a history of attacks against various religious minorities in Pakistan. The Gojra tragedy was a shameful example of such religious intolerance and violence against minorities.
The Gojra incident began with an attack on Christians in a village called Korian near Gojra town on 31 July 2009 where more than 50 houses were burnt and the people were terrorized. The pretext for this attack was a false accusation that Christians had desecrated the Holy Qur’an. After two days the violence moved to Gojra town itself and led to the deaths of a number of Christians living there. Residents of the Christian colony in Gojra say that they heard gunshots and saw masked men, who used explosives to blow up houses, leading to members of a family being burned alive.
As the events unfolded, it became apparent that the incident was in no way a random act, but rather a pre planned action. The shortage of police was an important reason the flame of the violence in Gojra was fanned so readily. Asma Jahangir, the chairperson of the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan made clear that incidents such as Gojra will happen again unless changes are made to existing laws and their enforcement.
A judicial inquiry commission constituted by the Punjab government headed by Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, Judge of Lahore High Court has already submitted to the government its report on the Gojra incident. Yet this report has still not been made public. The people and organizations responsible for the attack remain free and the applicants, witnesses and other victims of the case are under threat from the culprits and their allies: to ensure their security is an urgent necessity. The governments (both provincial and federal) need to launch a comprehensive programme for community cohesion. The Ministry for Minority Affairs has taken some initiatives which are appreciated.
However we believe that a major underlying factor of such incidents is the continuing existence of Law 295 (particularly Section C) as part of the Pakistan Penal Code. Section 295-C states, ‘Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.’ Other sections of the legislation refer to the defiling of the Qur’an (punishable with life imprisonment), and ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’ (punishable with imprisonment up to ten years).
Religious minorities in Pakistan know well that these ‘blasphemy laws’ are used for harassment which results in forced conversion, loss of property, social and economical deprivation. They become the basis of false accusations against members of minority communities by those seeking economic or other advantages.
It is not only the minorities themselves which suffer from these laws. Lawyers who appear in court on behalf of accused persons in blasphemy cases face severe threats. For example, the retired Judge of the Lahore High Court, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who set aside the death sentence passed by the Session Courts in the case of two Christians, Salamat Masih, and Rehmat Masih was shot and killed by an Islamic extremist. In view of continuing threats and intimidation, it has become increasingly difficult to engage the services of lawyers to defend cases registered under the ‘blasphemy laws.’
We believe a sizable number of Pakistan's Muslims agree that the existing blasphemy laws should be repealed or at least amended. However, past government attempts to do so have been blocked by religious conservatives. We ask for action to initiate revision, review and possibly repeal of the blasphemy laws.
Even in the last few weeks, with the murder on July 19 of the two brothers Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel while in police custody, we have seen how these laws seem to provoke violence and attacks on members of the vulnerable religious minority communities.
Incidents such as Gojra will happen again unless changes are made to existing laws and their enforcement, and there is transformation in attitudes and confidence and better understanding among the religious communities.
Prayer for Pakistan
Ruling and reconciling God,
Creator and sustainer of our world,
We pray for those places where politics is wrought with pain,
And where communalism shouts more strongly than community.
Protect the vulnerable, and quieten the spirits of those who see violence as their solution.
Give voice to your Church to enable it to witness for justice and truth.
Enable the people of all lands to cherish the value of unity in diversity,
To honour one another and humankind as your creation.
This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who came to offer us your gift of abundant life. Amen.
This note has been prepared by NIFCON staff members Clare Amos and Rana Khan.