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Accused of blasphemy, Catholic family flees Islamabad

Christian community, other religious minorities frequent targets of harassment, abuse

Accused of blasphemy, Catholic family flees Islamabad

Pakistani civil activists on Nov. 7, 2014, participate in a protest against the murder of a Christian couple in Karachi. The couple was killed for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran. (Photo by AFP)

Salma had no idea that referring to an anti-Muslim video on Facebook would force her family to flee their Islamabad home.

"I have been living in Islamabad for eight years after my marriage. But we only had our clothes when we left. Is this justice? Did we deserve this punishment?" asked the mother of three, who requested that her real name not be used.

Her family is the latest among the victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Even allegations of a violations of these laws are hugely sensitive often leading to mob violence and extrajudicial killings.

Blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence in Pakistan. The state has not carried out any executions for those convicted, but a number of people have been killed, some in prison or before their trial ended.

Blasphemy against the Quran is punishable with life imprisonment. Church leaders have long charged that the laws are abused for personal gain and that religious extremists are furthering their agenda by abusing blasphemy laws.

Salma alleges she got into trouble because she spoke about the controversial clip with a Muslim neighbor whom she owned 12,000 rupees (US$115).

"During a heated argument, he accused me of not respecting their religion. I accidently shared about a recent Facebook video against the Prophet Muhammad arguing that we Pakistani Christians respect Muslims more than the rest of the world," she told ucanews.com.

Salma's husband, a tailor, was summoned by community elders that same afternoon. He was asked to accept Islam or leave the city. When he refused, he was beaten before fleeing Islamabad.

The Catholic family is now hiding in Punjab province, fearful of their lives.


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Fatal accusations

Media reports say 52 people have been murdered after being charged with blasphemy since 1990. These include 25 Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist and a Hindu. Seventeen people are presently awaiting execution for blasphemy and at least 20 are serving life sentences.

The Pakistan Supreme Court in October called for improvements in the way blasphemy cases are processed. 

"The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community," the verdict said.


Concern of the church

The Catholic Church too has long been campaigning for equal rights of religious minorities and highlighting the injustices they are subjected to because of blasphemy laws.

In May 1998, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad committed suicide on the steps of the Sahiwal courthouse to protest the death sentence of a Christian man. That person was later acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Bishop Joseph Arshad, who presently heads the Faisalabad Diocese in Punjab province, says the latest case relating to Salma only highlights the predicament of local Christians. Most of the serious cases of Christian persecution were registered in Punjab province.

"Basically the introduction of these laws have created a division in Pakistani society; the poor are easily blamed. If one person is targeted, his family in particular and Christian community in general is threatened," he said. 

"Not only Catholics but Muslims are also suffering due to the serious impact of this law," he added.

The Pakistan bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace is closely working with like-minded groups and authorities to help assist the victims, the bishop said.

"Our interfaith sessions and initiatives are playing a great role in stopping such cases," Bishop Arshad said.

However, none of his efforts can help Salma return to a normal life. "Despite returning the loan, I can never visit my in-laws in Islamabad now. Earnings from stitching clothes has dropped ... our life is finished," she said.

More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians.

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