Watershed Moment for Religious Freedom in Pakistan
As the sun rose in Pakistan this morning, joy and fear mingled in the hearts of those in religious minority communities. They are happy that Asia Bibi, a 47-year old Pakistani-Catholic, and mother of five, who was imprisoned in 2009 and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, will finally be released from her long solitary confinement.
But they are also afraid. All across the country, churches, temples, schools, businesses and other organizations will be shuttered today; their services and classes canceled, doors closed. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence in a blasphemy case that has drawn international attention since 2009. Extremist groups have vowed to retaliate.
Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities have good reason to fear reprisals from extremist Islamic fundamentalists, long willing to defend the religious blasphemy law with assassinations and murder.
Voice of Courage
The influential governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, spoke out early for Bibi, visited her in prison and lobbied for her release. He was also critical of the blasphemy law.
He was assassinated by his own guards outside a market in Islamabad in January 2011. He was shot 27 times at close range. His assailant, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Mr. Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Friends of Taseer say he knew he was risking his life by speaking out.
I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy.Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing
— Salmaan Taseer (@SalmaanTaseer) December 31, 2010
“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing,” he tweeted in 2010.
Ready to Die
In March of 2011, after speaking out against religious blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister of Minorities and the only Christian cabinet member, was gunned down in front of his mother’s house.
“He was a humble and brave man who dedicated his political activity to enabling the peaceful coexistence of the different religions in his country,” said Marco Impagliazzo, a professor and peace activist, who spoke with Bhatti minutes before his death.
Courageous Decision Met With New Threats
Refusing to bow to pressure and threats of violence from extremist groups, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, with Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan, announced the verdict on October 31, 2018.
In truth, the verdict sparing Bibi from being hanged for the crime of blasphemy was handed down weeks ago. On October 8, the court barred reporters from covering the decision for fear of riots and violent reprisals from extremist groups.
Pakistan is a modern democracy, with an elected government and freedom of religion; not an Islamic theocracy like Saudi Arabia. However, dangerous extremist elements do still exist in Pakistan, and even members of the government at the highest levels have to tread carefully.
One Supreme Court judge originally assigned to the case had to recuse himself due to threats from extremist groups. Saiful Malook, Asia Bibi’s attorney, has also been threatened.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Muslim extremist movement, Tehrik-e-Labaik, has promised a “horrible end” to the judges who acquitted Bibi.
“This decision is against the wishes of the entire Muslim community,” according to one protester, Mohammed Fayyaz. “They are playing with fire.”
Hours after the verdict, the BBC reported that the court’s decision “has set off violent protests by hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws.”
Demonstrations are being held in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Multan. In the capital of Islamabad, the area where the Pakistani Supreme Court is located, has been sealed off by police.
Asia Bibi and the Supreme Court Judges aren’t the only ones in danger.
Samson Salamat of the interfaith “Movement for Tolerance” and others are calling on the Pakistani government to take the threats of extremist groups seriously and send Tehreek-e-Labaik, and all similar groups, a clear message that religious violence will not be tolerated.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has praised Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in the past, has not given a statement on the verdict so far. A spokesman for the government refused to comment outside the court, according to local media outlets.
Pakistan has never executed anyone under the blasphemy law, although some accused of blasphemy have been killed in vigilante attacks in recent years.
For many in Pakistan, this landmark verdict for religious tolerance is full of hope, a step towards peace in a modern democracy. Throughout the country, messages of support and solidarity from every religious group are pouring in.