College students enrolling as volunteers for Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for justice and Peace.
Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws have brought with them an unexpected but welcome effect: according to some of the people who have endured it, the persecution that comes with accusation has actually brought them nearer to God. Passed in 1986, the laws are fearsomely stringent. To defile a sacred place or object, to insult the Qu’ran or the prophet Muhammad, are all offenses punishable by death. The laws are also open to the widest range of interpretations, which leads opponents to claim that they are often manipulated and used unfairly, to settle scores or make personal gain. And they are almost invariably accompanied by harassment, threats, beatings and worse. One of their earliest victims was Catherine Shaheen. She was the principal of a government school in Rangpur, Punjab, when she became the first Christian woman to be accused of blasphemy, in 1995. To avoid being imprisoned or killed, she fled and lived in hiding for four years, until she escaped to the USA where she was granted asylum. Now she is briefly back in Pakistan, trying to arrange a US visa for her adopted daughter, although she has to take extreme care and largely remain in hiding. She spoke frankly to ucanews.com. “I still remember my 3,000 students,” she says. “Professional jealousy was the real motive behind my being accused by four of them. One of them was the daughter of a Muslim teacher at my school.” Now settled, living and working as a teacher in Virginia, she says she has come a lot closer to God through her ordeal. She frequently speaks of Jesus, referring to him as her Savior, and now spends her Friday evenings sharing bible sessions with a Muslim Bangladeshi friend. “She is interested in searching for the truth and I try to reply all the questions she gathers during the week,” says Catherine. In 2002, she was joined for a while by Ayub Masih who fled the country after spending six years in prison for blasphemy. Amnesty International, who took up his cause, believes that the true reason behind his prison sentence was a land dispute. “He always used to say that he was suffering for his family. I insisted that only Christ could die for others,” says Catherine. The ferocity of the law has prompted Pope Benedict XVI to call for its repeal, but the government announced in January that there would be no amendment. Meanwhile, it continues to wreak havoc; politicians Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were both assassinated for their outspoken criticism of it, while Asia Bibi still waits to hear if she will be the first woman to be put to death for blasphemy. “We cannot return to our home or even keep a mobile phone. I have to take care of our 12 year old daughter who was born with a deformed leg. We appeal for prayers,” said her husband. But he too feels that the experience has brought God more into their lives and says the prayers that have been said for them have helped them to survive in hiding. "Now we pray for Asia and wait for the bishops to negotiate with the authorities," he said. Related reports Blasphemy protest gathers strength Court frees all Gojra suspects