This blog is Part 2 of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our first installment on Turkey.
Last month, a Pakistani court indefinitely delayed the appeal hearing of a Christian husband and wife accused of blasphemy, dashing the couple’s hopes for justice. Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel have been imprisoned since 2013 and on death row since 2014, on charges they say cannot possibly be true.
In June of 2013, a Muslim cleric claimed he had received a “blasphemous” text message from a SIM card registered in Shagufta’s name. The cleric and his lawyer then both claimed to receive more inciteful texts from the same SIM card. The texts were allegedly written in English. However, Shagufta and Shafqat, like many religious minorities in Pakistan, are poorly educated and illiterate, incapable of composing “blasphemous” texts in English. Yet, authorities arrested the couple and charged them both with “insulting the Qur’an” (under Section 295-B) and “insulting the Prophet” (Section 295-C). These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively.
Today, Shagufta and Shafqat are detained in separate prisons in different districts of the Punjab province. They are forced to stay in isolation because the authorities fear other prisoners may kill them. Shagufta’s brother, Joseph, says, “My brother-in-law is almost physically dead, as he is paralyzed and can’t move his lower body, and my sister is mentally dead as she has been living alone for over six years and also feels people may kill her, even in prison. She is very disturbed and her hair is falling out.” Meanwhile, their four children are growing up without their parents.
Stories like Shagufta and Shafqat’s are not altogether uncommon in Pakistan, where violent radicals pressure the courts to rule against religious minorities in order to defend Islam.
Blasphemy Laws and Mob Violence
Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to Islam and are utilized to target both Muslims and non-Muslims. People will often accuse others of blasphemy to settle unrelated disputes. Shagufta and Shafqat suspect their accuser was retaliating for a fight between their children.
When blasphemy cases are heard in court, radicals often see the perceived instance of blasphemy as an attack on the Muslim faith and put immense pressure on the courts to condemn the accused. Sometimes violent mobs pose a real threat to judges, especially those at the regional level who lack security details. Last year, one Ahmadiyya Muslim man accused of blasphemy was shot and killed in the courtroom.
Pakistan carries the dubious distinction of having the highest number of incidences of mob activity, violence, and threats related to blasphemy accusations in the world. Pakistan is officially an Islamic state, and an overwhelming majority of the population adheres to Islam. Religious tensions with the tiny Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Ahmadiyya Muslim minority groups run high.
Many Christians and other minorities have limited options for work. They have high illiteracy and poverty rates and are often relegated to menial jobs as farmhands, sanitation workers, or street sweepers.These jobs carry harsh stigmas, reinforcing cultural discrimination against them.
The marginalization of these religious minority communities makes it difficult for them to advocate for themselves.
A tragic consequence of religious discrimination and violence is that it enables a trend of forced conversion. Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was kidnapped from her home by three men in October 2019. A few days later, the kidnappers sent Huma’s parents copies of a marriage certificate and documents alleging her conversion to Islam. Although her parents appealed to the courts for help, they ultimately sent her back to her abductor’s home, where she remains trapped within one room.
The failure of the Pakistani police and judicial system to secure justice for girls like Huma is shameful. The contentious nature of cases involving religion sometimes makes it dangerous for authorities to do the right thing. In the case of a young Hindu girl who had been kidnapped and forcibly converted, over 1,500 people gathered outside the court and pressured the judge to give in to the demands of the Muslim man accused of forced conversion.
Protecting Pakistan’s Religious Minorites Is Worth the Effort
The youngest democracy on earth, Pakistan is a complex country with many human rights challenges and a turbulent recent history. Pakistan’s weak rule of law has disastrous consequences for religious minorities most in need of legal protection.
Improving Pakistan’s religious freedom conditions will be a long and slow journey. U.S. and international leaders should continue to press Pakistani leaders to repeal its blasphemy laws and provide more protection for religious minority communities. For the sake of those who simply want to practice their faith in peace, it is worth the effort.