Muhammad Zubair Abid (right) receives an award from a Christian sanitary worker at Maisonette Hotel in Lahore on Dec. 3. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Muhammad Zubair Abid was startled after a Muslim cleric showed him a video of alleged blasphemy by Christian sanitary workers.
“It showed six workers of Lahore Waste Management Company collecting garbage in a panaflex emblazoned with a photo of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. It was filmed last week at the canal in Lahore,” said Abid, vice-chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC).
A police report was submitted against the group for throwing pamphlets with the Prophet Muhammad’s name on it in the bin.
However, the six arrested workers returned to their homes after being declared innocent on Nov. 28 at Muttahida Ulema Board, a government body.
“We listened to both parties. The Christians were illiterate and therefore innocent. They didn’t know about the statements on the panaflex. It was a misunderstanding. The cleric was scolded for filming the incident instead of saving the religious flex,” Abid told UCA News.
“We wanted to highlight the incident at a press conference but decided to keep their names secret. The publicity could harm them as well as PUC officials. We are trying to ensure punishment for those who falsely accuse others of blasphemy.”
He was speaking on the sidelines of a Dec. 3 awards ceremony for sanitary workers at a hotel in Lahore. Mary James Gill, founder of the Sewper Heroes Campaign, awarded Abid along with 10 sanitary workers from around the country.
“This is an important development. Not many people know about it. It was very brave and wise of him to handle the situation. We should support and honor the services of such like-minded clerics. He helped in saving lives of the poor workers,” said Gill, who won the Anna Lindh Prize 2020 last month for campaigning for the most vulnerable groups, based on human rights.
Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative on religious harmony, also acknowledged the misuse of blasphemy laws.
“You know and we accept that 295C has been misused in the past. But the trend has decreased 90 percent under the present government. We have decided to sit with non-Muslim leadership and spread awareness regarding the issue of insulting Islam and the Prophet to discourage misuse of this law. The blasphemy law has saved the lives of Christians accused of blasphemy,” said Ashrafi at a press conference with Catholic and Protestant bishops this week.
Since his appointment as PM’s representative in September, Ashrafi has reviewed 104 blasphemy cases.
“We have declared 100 victims innocent and shared recommendations. I thank clerics of all sects and lawyers for cooperating with us in this matter. We want to move ahead. Pakistan belongs to all religious minorities. Everyone should work within the ambit of the constitution and law,” he said.
“Six Ahmadis have been assassinated for their faith between July and last month. However, culprits in four cases have been arrested. Two cases are being investigated. Let me clearly state that we cannot permit killing or loss of any Pakistani.”
Naumana Suleman, former minority female adviser to UN Women Pakistan, welcomed the change.
“We had been clamoring for years about the abuse. Finally, the authorities have recognized the misuse of these laws and are now trying to control the damage. Perception is changing as the majority feels the heat of this fire as well,” she said.
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in deeply conservative Pakistan where mere allegations have led to extrajudicial killings and mob violence.
Catholic groups and human rights campaigners have long sought the repeal of draconian blasphemy laws, arguing they are used to victimize religious minorities or settle personal scores.
In August, 42 blasphemy cases were registered in Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 75 percent of cases were filed against Shia Muslims in relation to speeches made at religious processions.
Last month an officer of the Capital Development Authority Islamabad was removed from his post for making derogatory remarks about sanitation workers.
Chief Commissioner of Islamabad Amer Ali Ahmed ordered an inquiry into the incident after a protest by Christians who alleged that the officer threatened to lodge cases against them under blasphemy charges.
In October 2019, Christian sanitary worker Amir Masih was accused of blasphemy after he found a bag containing pages from the Bible and the Quran while collecting garbage in Faisalabad city of Punjab province.
Many Christians fled their homes after announcements were made in mosques to punish the culprit and burn the houses of Christians. Police arrested his father but later dropped blasphemy charges against Masih.