Gojra Tragedy, A call for action; By Salman Aneel


“I am weak and my parents taught me to respect every religion,” Bernard, 15 year old Pakistani boy expressed these views on the Gojra tragedy. “Apart from being poor, weak and knowing the punishment I will never think of desecrating the Quran. It is a holy book and gives the message of peace and harmony. Pakistan is my country and all my school friends are Muslims.”
Till 1947, the Christians of the sub continent had one thing in their favor; they belonged to the same religion as the ruling class, even though the rulers preferred to dine and wine with the Hindus and Muslims and neglected the Christian community. This changed radically in 1947, especially in Pakistan . The new country was created at the insistent call of the Muslims of the sub-continent. Hence, the Muslims became the masters of the new country. The Christians were the tiny minority in the newly created country, Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Representing less than 3% of the nation's 175 million people, Christians historically have occupied the lower rungs of society, largely relegated to menial jobs. In other words, the Christians remained poor in every sense of the word i-e economically, socially and educationally. The role of churches, political representatives and Christian institutions has not been plausible all these years. They have been working like corporations, attracting aid from abroad and creating social classes within the community. The rich occupied the top brass of church administration and always kept the poor Christians in a vicious circle. The church clergy and Christian political representatives are only good for talking in the church or public forums without any action plan for the uplift of community.
Ironically, while within their own community, Christians have to deal with prejudice, they are forced to deal with even worse scenarios by those who are in the majority around them. The August 1st 2009, is not the first time Christians have been made a target and accused of blasphemy. No one can forget the horrifying episode that took place 12 years ago at Shanti Nagar. Eight hundred Christian families lost their homes. After the two and half hour riot they were left homeless and stranded. A similar incident happened in Kasur where houses belonging to Christians were set on fire. On 30th June 2009, a mob of some 600 people attacked a hundred Christian homes in Bahmani, a village in Kasur district in Punjab . The August 2009 Gojra tragedy is just another dark chapter in a slew of others that has shaken people and brings a shiver in spine when one looks at the devastation in the area.
A spasm of religious violence came to Gojra, a rural town of Punjab in the shape of an angry Muslim mob on a Saturday morning of 01 August. Muslims marched to avenge what they believed (and most still do) was the desecration of their holiest book the Holy Quran. When it was over, fifty houses were torched and the Faith Bible Pentecostal Church lay in ruins. Two villagers were shot dead, five others, including two children, burned alive. Killing has become commonplace in Pakistan . But this attack startled the country both for its ferocity and for its stark message to religious minorities. Many see the violence as further evidence of the growing power of the Taliban and allied Islamist militant groups in Punjab province, home to about half of Pakistan 's population.
Pakistan 's blasphemy laws date back to the colonial era. The late military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced a further, harsher clause as part of his sweeping "Islamization" program. The Blasphemy Law has been a source of victimization and persecution of minorities, including Christians and Hindus in Pakistan . In the present climate of hate, intolerance and violence, Blasphemy Law have become a major tool in the hands of extremists to settle personal scores against members of the religious minorities. Under the Pakistan Penal Code the definition of Blasphemy lacks clarity, yet, it carries a mandatory death sentence. The implementation of the law also poses a serious problem. Since the mandatory death sentence was introduced by an amendment to Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986 many innocent people have lost their lives, some could not even have their day in court. They were killed before the courts could even hear the case registered against them. Presently, a large number of those charged under the Blasphemy Law languish in jail, many others have been forced to seek safety and sanctuary in countries abroad and some have gone into hiding in the country.
It is difficult to find lawyers to defend cases of those charged under the Blasphemy Law. Even if one is able to find a lawyer, it has become virtually impossible to get a fair hearing. In view of the pressure brought by Islamic religious parties, judges of the lower courts have often been constrained to convict the accused without proper study of evidence placed before them. This hate is so intense and pervasive that a retired judge of the High Court Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who set aside the death sentence passed by the Session Court in case of Christians, named Salamat Masih, Rehmat Masih and Manzoor Masih was shot dead in his chambers by an Islamic extremist. In May 1998, the Roman Catholic Bishop, John Joseph of the Faisalabad diocese gave his life in protest against the indiscriminate use of Blasphemy Law against the Christians. Human rights groups have long appealed to successive governments to repeal or amend the laws. The current ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party, vowed to do so in its election manifesto. As yet, nothing has been done. But presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar says the Gojra tragedy "has increased the urgency of revisiting these laws."
Minority Rights Group International, a London-based watchdog organization, ranks Pakistan as the world's sixth- most dangerous country for minorities. Along with Christians, groups under threat include a variety of ethnicities, such as Pashtun in the northwest and Balochis and Sindhis in the south, the group says. Minority Shiate Muslims have also been victimized by Sunni Muslim radical groups. Punjab has been notorious as the breeding ground of Islamic fundamentalists. There have been incidents of religious and ethnic conflicts by banned militant groups. These recurring bloody events put a big question mark, especially on the state of governance of Punjab in particular and Pakistan in general. The country is already a sinking ship and a failed state according to our neighbor India . The government seems incapable or perhaps handicapped in tackling such a crisis even though these recurring fundamentalist acts and actors have given them so many learning opportunities. Sadly, every time innocent people have to pay the price. The government has shown a dismal record for protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
Brig (retd) Samson Sharaf shares the preparedness of the government in his article “Victims of Half Law” as “Reportedly, around 18th of July, intelligence agencies had issued a warning to the Government of Punjab of likely incidents of terrorism in which some enclaves of minority Pakistanis could be targeted. Rather than taking this information seriously, the provincial government deemed it fit to act as it did, allowing free access to militant outfits for arson and murder.”
“I hope that the Pakistani government will take meaningful and purposeful steps to uplift the Christian minorities’ rights to live in Pakistan in a peaceful way” said Pastor Manzoor Alam from New York . He admired the speech of President Zardari in which he condemned this Gojra incident but he expects from the President to take solid action on the handful of people who are responsible for this very degraded act which not only disgraced Islam, but has also put to shame the people of a nation who are essentially law abiding and peace loving.
Dr Samie Samson, a renowned American scholar on Islam and Christianity in his interview said
“Pakistan government must handle the Gojra Christian case under the Islamic law called law of equality and I quote, "and we prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it (in the way of charity) it shall be expitation for him. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers. (Surah Al-Maidah Verse 45) " And as per the second best source Al-Bukhari Vol.6 Hadith 4611 narrated by Anas bin Mailk: “Ar-Rubai (The paternal aunt of Anas bin Mailk) broke the incisor tooth of a young Ansari girl. Her family demanded Al- Qisas and they came to the Prophet peace be upon Him who passed the judgment of Al-Qisas. Anas bin An-Nadr (the paternal uncle of Anas bin Mailk) said, "Oh Allah's Messenger! By Allah, her tooth will not be broken." The Prophet said, "O Anas!(The law prescribed in) Allah's Book is Al Qisas". So, (later on) the people (i-e, relatives of the girl) gave up their claim and accepted blood money. On that Allah's Messenger said, "Some of Allah's worshippers are such that if they take an oath, Allah will fulfil it for them." Now in the light of solid and clear references, the Government of Pakistan must handle the alive and burnt Christians case in such a way to prove that they can keep the morale and standard of Islamic doctrine in Pakistan . As per the Islamic law of equality it must happen this way. The equal number must be burnt or the killers must pay the blood money to the relatives of the victims. Pakistani Government must take these references as a guideline and leave an example for the world about the standard of Islam of what they preach and what they practice for the peace and harmony of minorities in Pakistan .”
Pakistan was made so people can have religious freedom and live according to their beliefs. No community has the right to question any religion. Islam is a religion of peace and protects the minorities as no religion as ever done. Allah Himself has taken the responsibility to protect His Holy book. Remember how the Holy Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) treated the non Muslims. Let us not get carried away by hatred and prejudice, because of a few groups who are using religion to divide and create chaos. Time to join hands, stay united and rebut the evil elements of society. The churches and political representatives need to come out of their false shells and work together above and beyond their religious beliefs and differences. Think beyond chanda (charity) and pull out the marginalized communities and work towards unified development. The Government of Pakistan needs to reassess their counter terrorism strategies and learn more about crisis management.
“First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” Rev. Martin Niemoller in 1945.

(Aneel Salman, an academic , is a citizen of Pakistan based in US who shares the grief of the victims of Kasur and Gojra)

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