Several Christian churches—estimates range from 16 to 21—were torched in the Jaranwala district of Faisalabad by a mob of Muslim men earlier this week. The instigating factor, as in so many similar cases in the past, was allegations of blasphemy against two Christian men, who police have registered a case against for “desecrating the holy Quran and abusing” Islam’s Prophet (PBUH). The incident has provoked much outrage and condemnations from government officials and civilians alike, with the National Commission for Human Rights warning that “blasphemy laws have repeatedly been misused with impunity,” hinting the problem is not going away anytime soon.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. The Christian minority in Pakistan has been routinely subject to harassment over the past decade, with the attack on the Joseph Colony in Lahore in 2013 that left over 100 houses razed still reverberating among the community. All the attackers, easily identified through video footage and eyewitness statements, were acquitted by courts. This was followed in 2014 by a mob beating and then setting on fire a couple, Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, for alleged blasphemy. Two years later, just five men were sentenced to death; of these two were acquitted by courts in appeals. Further back, in 2009, eight Christians were killed during the Gojra riots in 2009. No one was convicted for the crime. In 2012, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was accused of blasphemy, being acquitted of all charges two weeks later. The cleric who had falsely accused her was acquitted of all charges. Throughout, the common elements have been the Muslim majority attacking the Christian minority with impunity, suffering no punishment for the crimes committed.
The key problem lies in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which provide a form of legal cover for people—mostly men and Muslims—to target anyone accused of blasphemy, with clerics of mosques often playing a key role in inciting the violence, as witnessed in Jaranwala. It wasn’t until 1982, when military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq introduced Section 295B in the Pakistan Penal Code, that “defiling the holy Quran” became punishable by life imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, blasphemy allegations—most of them false—mushroomed in the aftermath, with rights organizations making it clear the law was often misused either for personal gain or to settle enmities.
Positively, both Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have condemned the Jaranwala incident and vowed to ensure punishment for all culprits. Whether this will prove eyewash, as in so many cases in the past, remains to be seen.