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The clock is ticking for Pakistan's beleaguered Christian nurses

Christian rights activists must continue the peaceful struggle of Bishop John Joseph to end the misuse of blasphemy laws

The clock is ticking for Pakistan's beleaguered Christian nurses

Christian staff nurse Maryam Lal (left) and Catholic nursing student Newsh Arooj were arrested on blasphemy charges in Faisalabad last month. (Photo supplied)

"Religiously charged staff of Lahore mental hospital take over the building." This headline may seem like something ripped straight out of a psychological horror film, but it actually happened on April 27 when Muslim nurses occupied a chapel at the hospital that was used for Sunday services after they accused a Christian nurse of committing blasphemy by sending an "objectionable" video to a nurses’ unofficial WhatsApp group.

Videos of nurses reciting naats (devotional hymns to the Prophet Muhammad) in front of a wooden cross and a banner with Biblical verse, and then raiding the premises, quickly went viral on social media.

The facility has 700 employees, of whom 339 staffers including 105 nurses are Christian. Since 2019, the hospital administration has designated a multipurpose auditorium as a chapel for Christian staffers for 30 minutes of weekly prayer.

On May 3, Dominican Father James Channan, regional coordinator of United Religions Initiative Pakistan, joined interfaith leaders and hospital staff to sign an agreement to end the conflict.

“Both parties will not issue any statement or complaint against each other. The atmosphere of love will be prevailed. The Christians will continue using this auditorium for weekly worship as before,” it stated. Meanwhile the accused nurse has been granted a month's leave. 

This is the third reported incident of blasphemy allegations against Christian nurses this year.

The increasing blasphemy cases against Christian nurses have increased their deep insecurity

On April 9, two Christians nurses were detained by police after a first information report under section 295-B of the blasphemy law was made by a doctor at Civil Hospital, Faisalabad, who accused them of scratching a sticker inscribed with “Durood Shareef,” a salutation for the Prophet Muhammad. 

In January, Christian nurse Tabitha Nazir Gill was slapped and stripped for alleged blasphemy at a hospital in Karachi in Sindh province where she had worked for nine years. She remains in hiding.

The population of minority women in Pakistan is estimated to be around 3 million, of whom around 2 per cent work as nurses, doctors, teachers, professors or do office work, claims the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) in a recent study titled "Violence and Discrimination against Women of Religious Minority Backgrounds in Pakistan."

The increasing blasphemy cases against Christian nurses have increased their deep insecurity. In recent weeks I have spoken to several Christian families who described urging their daughters to ignore discourse on religion in hospitals.

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A group of Christian nurses, hiding behind face masks, took to social media to plead for protection and bread for their family.

“It will ruin us as a nation. Minorities are at your mercy. While the world is appreciating the services of health workers [amid the pandemic], look at what you are doing. We worked hard to be here. Other nurses are irritating us so that we quit our jobs. You are threatening us,” they stated in a video.

“For God we urge the chief justice of Pakistan and prime minister to review the blasphemy laws being used to settle personal scores. The law should prevent this tyranny. Keep this profession peaceful and for service only. Don’t use it for terrorism.”

Minority places of worship are not enemy posts to be conquered. Religious assaults on Christian nurses may be a start. If the trend continues, other Christian professionals including doctors and lawyers will be next. Protests against the ongoing assaults will further isolate Pakistan in the international community.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report for 2021, released last month, retained Pakistan as “a country of particular concern” while seeking the repeal of the “blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws” and the release of blasphemy accused.

Last week the European parliament adopted a resolution demanding Islamabad allow freedom for religious minorities and asked the European Union to reconsider its GSP (Generalized Scheme of Preferences) plus status for Pakistan amid the increasing number of blasphemy cases.

Instead of looking at Europe and the US, Pakistani Christians are waiting for their leaders in these tough times

The European parliament also appealed for the freedom of Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, who have been on death row since 2014 after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

“The prime minister intends to take the leaders of the Muslim countries into confidence and tell the European Union and the United Nations not to hurt the feelings of 125 million Muslims in the world. What about the feelings of the non-Muslims in Pakistan? Fix up your own house first,” said Father Abid Habib, former president of the Major Superiors Leadership Conference of Pakistan.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the death of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, who killed himself on May 6, 1998, in front of the courthouse in Sahiwal after a Christian, Ayub Masih, was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Besides his sacrificial death, the activist bishop is also remembered for kissing the feet of Manzoor Masih, another Christian victim of blasphemy, killed extrajudicially in 1993.

Perhaps the Catholic leaders of today should express the same concern for the persecuted minority. Even the occasional appearance of bishops accompanying the faithful in police stations wins our hearts. Instead of looking at Europe and the US, Pakistani Christians are waiting for their leaders in these tough times.

As we continue to wait for another Bishop John Joseph to emerge, I would recommend Christian human rights activists to continue the peaceful struggle of our late bishop to end the misuse of blasphemy laws.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan has proclaimed 2021 the Year of St. Joseph the Worker. Let us take a step forward and form a multi-tiered support plan for Christian health workers who are on the front line against the double pandemic of prejudice and Covid-19.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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