Supporters of religious group Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat march during a rally in Peshawar on July 31 in support of Khalid Khan, who shot dead a man accused of blasphemy in a courtroom on July 29. (Photo: Abdul Majeed/AFP)
A discussion on eating sacrificial meat at Eid al-Adha turned potentially deadly for Christian man Sohail Masih when he was arrested on blasphemy charges.
“It is not possible that the blood of goats and bulls can wash away sins. The incident of Miraj is based on a lie,” he posted on Facebook, referring to Lailat al Miraj, also known as the Night of Ascension.
The annual observance marks Prophet Muhammad's nighttime journey from Mecca to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from where he ascended into heaven. Masih, not a surname but used to identify a male Pakistani as a Christian, was arrested on Aug. 5.
The same evening, an enraged mob held protests and attacked the police station in Nowshera Virkan in Punjab province. Shouting slogans against Masih, the protesters tore away the door of the police station and exchanged angry words with police officers.
Allama Muhammad Abdul Sattar, worship leader of a mosque, filed a first information report (FIR) with police against Masih, who has been kept in custody for his own safety.
“The culprit shared the post with two people. They visited my madrasa [Islamic seminary] and showed it. Masih mocked the Miraj incident and the sacrifice which is a principle of Islam. Muslims were extremely hurt,” he stated.
Heavy contingents of police were deployed at the Christian settlement of Nowshera Virkan.
According to Khalid Shehzad, a Catholic member of the National Lobbying Delegation, the FIR was registered at 3am.
“The locals held meetings to avoid any clash but the pressure kept mounting. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a hardline religious party, targets religious minorities, especially Christians,” the human rights activist told UCA News.
“Their activists outnumber the police, who succumb to pressure and register blasphemy cases. The victim spends his whole life on trial. Semi-literate pastors teach hate.”
Nasir Saeed, director of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) UK, a charity dedicated to helping persecuted Christians in Pakistan, said several Christians have been charged with blasphemy for sharing or having blasphemous content on their phones or computers.
“It is difficult to prevent the abuse of social media platforms like WhatsApp when others can easily harass Christians and plant evidence on them even if the [accused] Christian did not directly interact with the content,” he said.
“It is a very worrying situation as the misuse of the blasphemy law continues to rise and instead of taking steps to stop its misuse, the government continues to pass legislation which makes the existing law more stringent. Because of silence and inaction from the government, people are taking the law as a religious duty. Pakistani society has become more and more indolent and I see no future for the religious minorities in Pakistan.”
Consumption of sacrificial meat
Every year as Eid al-approaches, the Catholic Church in Pakistan holds awareness drive in churches and on social media about the consumption of sacrificial meat during the annual Muslim festival.
The “Festival of Sacrifice” is celebrated by Muslims to mark the occasion when Allah appeared to the Prophet Abraham in a dream and asked him to sacrifice his son Ishmael to demonstrate his devotion to the Almighty.
Ignoring the advice of the devil, who tried to tempt Abraham into disobeying Allah by saying he should spare Ishmael, Abraham was about to press ahead with the sacrifice when Allah stopped him and gave him a lamb to kill instead.
Muslims celebrate Eid by feasting on a sacrificed animal, usually a goat or a sheep. The priests condemn those who term the Muslim feast as "the devil's sacrifice." Awareness seminars on cybercrime law are also held for church youth groups.
In 2018, the federal cabinet approved an amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act aimed at bringing blasphemy and pornography within the ambit of the cybercrime law.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where allegations of insulting Islam can mobilize an entire village. Human rights activists say the law is often employed to settle scores.
Last month Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill 2020 under which the printing and publication of objectionable material are prohibited.
On Aug. 4, human rights activist Raza Haider was arrested for blasphemy over a Facebook post in which he wrote an open letter to Prophet Muhammad asking how he could come to people’s dreams and ask them to murder a blasphemer but couldn’t give an antidote to coronavirus.
On July 29, American citizen Tahir Ahmed Naseem was shot dead inside a courtroom in Peshawar, capital of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where he was due to attend a hearing on charges of blasphemy.
Naseem was a former member of Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi group, which has been constitutionally declared to be non-Muslim. The gunman told media that he was ordered by Prophet Muhammad in his dreams to kill Naseem because he was an Ahmadi.
Shehzad Ghias Shaikh, a Karachi-based stand-up comedian, is getting death threats for calling the murder a state failure.
“I have literally posted videos of every sect’s Islamic scholar saying there is no place for extrajudicial killings in Islam and still somehow most people cannot even condemn this or say anything against this in Pakistan. If Pakistan is for Muslims, why are we afraid to talk about it? Why are Islamic scholars afraid of saying that killing is wrong?” he asked in a Facebook post.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is holding a webinar titled “Curbing Freedom of Expression” next week.
“The HRCP is appalled at recent developments that are set to further whittle down space for freedom of intellectual thought, enquiry and expression. There is also ample reason to expect that the new Act by Punjab Assembly will be used to target religious minorities and sects,” the commission stated in a press release.
“Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board has already banned 100 books on ludicrous grounds. Not one of the reasons given by the board’s managing director at a press conference qualifies as rational grounds to censor content, penalize publishers and prevent critical thinking.”
The HRCP is gravely concerned that such measures herald yet tighter restrictions not only on freedom of expression but also on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The commission urged the Punjab government to heed its concerns and roll back such measures before they backfire.