Where Disagreement Becomes a Death Sentence
Interview With Lawyer Defending Pakistani Christians
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WASHINGTON. D.C., DEC. 6, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Pakistan's so-called anti-blasphemy laws periodically draw international attention -- as in the recent case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed. But these laws are something Pakistani Christians have lived with and endured for 20 years or more.
The American Center for Law and Justice is one such organization. Shaheryar Gill, a Pakistani-born lawyer educated in the United States and Korea, is an associate counsel for the center.
In this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Gill gives an insider's look at the anti-blasphemy laws and speaks about what reasons there are for hope in Pakistan.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? You were born and raised in Pakistan?
Gill: Yes, I was born in a Christian family. I was raised in Pakistan. I went to a Christian law school in Korea and then in the U.S.. And now I’m working with the American Center for Law and Justice as an associate counsel in Virginia.
Q: How did you come to this line of work?
Gill: I used to work with a human rights organization in Pakistan before going to law school, and our organization provided legal assistance to persecuted minorities in Pakistan -- especially Christians. During my work with that organization, I saw a lot of people in Pakistan being persecuted because of their religion and discriminated against because of their beliefs. So I started developing an interest in law and one day decided to go to law school.
Q: Can you tell me what kind of discrimination are we talking about?
Gill: Yes, in Pakistan people are persecuted because of their religion. Many people are targeted by the notorious “blasphemy laws” that were promulgated in 1986 by a military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, and under those laws a lot of people have been persecuted in the past two decades or so.
Q: What does “blasphemy law” mean? What are we talking about practically?
Gill: Basically if you say anything derogatory about Islam you can be prosecuted. The most notorious of these laws is Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which states that: Anyone who, by words either spoken or written or by visible representation defiles the sacred name of Mohammed shall be punished by death. Other sections of the penal code prohibit the desecration of the Quran and religious places, and even saying derogatory words about religious personalities.
Q: You say that this affects Christians and Muslims. How could this affect a Muslim?
Gill: It does not matter whether a person is a Christian or Muslim; once you say anything derogatory about Islam, anyone who hears that can go to the police station and file a blasphemy complaint against you. But you have to remember that these laws are not only used because of the alleged blasphemy but are used for personal disputes between two people. For example, one person decides to teach another a lesson, and so he goes to the police station and files criminal charges against the other. So these laws are also used for personal gain.
Q: Do you have any concrete examples that your NGO has been involved with in terms of trying to help people who have encountered this problem with the blasphemy laws?
Gill: There was an attack on a village in Kasur by a Muslim mob where hundreds of Muslims attacked a Christian village of 135 families. The triggering event was a blasphemy charge. There was a dispute between a Christian and a Muslim. A Christian was driving his tractor and he saw a motorbike standing in the middle of the road. He asked the owner of the motorbike to please move so that he could pass. The owner said to the Christian with the tractor: “How could a ‘Chuhra’ tell him what to do”? A "Chuhra" is a derogatory term for Christians. Over this they had a little fight. Some people intervened and stopped the fight and everybody went home. After a few hours a Muslim family gathered other people and attacked and beat the Christian family. The next day they announced in the mosque that a Christian desecrated the Quran. A mob gathered and attacked 135 families of that village just because of a petty fight between two people.
Q: So it can be easily politicized?
Gill: Absolutely. It can easily be politicized. Muslims in Pakistan are intolerant of any blasphemy against Islam. We have also to remember these incidences may not, as I said earlier, be blasphemy, but personal disputes. So people have to understand that they should, at least, first investigate what has happened and sort out these personal disputes in the court of law rather than using the blasphemy law for personal motives.
Q: You mentioned earlier that the word "Chuhra" is a derogatory word for Christians. What is the general relationship between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan?
Gill: Generally we usually live well together. Christians are allowed to go to churches and to have worship services, but when there is a dispute about religion itself and if there is an argument or even beyond that -- if there is a personal dispute -- the law is so easy to use. All you have to do is go to a police station and register a complaint. Now if you have a petty dispute with me, I [as a Muslim] am not going to a police station because the punishment for that may just be a fine. If, however, I register a complaint of blasphemy against you, your whole life may be ruined. Your property could be vandalized. You could go to jail for life.
Q: What would be a typical punishment for blasphemy?
Gill: There are different punishments depending on violations based on the penal code under the blasphemy section. The most grievous punishment is the death penalty if you say something [negative] about the Islamic prophet.
Q: Has this ever been carried out?
Gill: It has never been carried out, but people have been sentenced to death. Originally it was life imprisonment, or death. In 1991 the Federal Sharia Court, which is an Islamic court, said that life sentence is not an appropriate punishment and death is the only appropriate punishment for blasphemy against the prophet’s name.
Q: Now we have spoken a bit about the blasphemy laws. What other kinds of discrimination do Christians face in Pakistan?
Gill: I mentioned "Chuhra." Every Christian in his life has experienced being called that derogatory term by his Muslim neighbors, friends and others. The Christians are seen as de facto second-class citizens. Even the constitution makes Christians, or minorities, as second-class citizens because one of the articles in the constitution says that the president cannot be a non-Muslim. As a Christian I cannot run for president so automatically by the constitution you are a second-class citizen. Now the constitution does give fundamental rights: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, but those freedoms are subject to restrictions. Article 19 of the constitution, for example, gives you freedom of expression, freedom of speech, but is subject to "reasonable restrictions" such as for the “glory of Islam” or public order. These laws have not fulfilled those restrictions. From 1986 when the original blasphemy law, Section 295 C, was promulgated up to 2009, there have been more than 900 cases of blasphemy. Instead of prohibiting or restricting incidences of blasphemy, these laws have increased the cases of blasphemy. Most of these cases have been brought under false allegations. Now, false allegation in itself is blasphemy. So these laws that are supposed to protect the glory of Islam have basically violated the glory or sanctity of that religion when people bring false charges against others.
Q: Have you personally encountered these kinds of discriminations?
Gill: Not persecution in particular, but discrimination. My Muslim friends have called me a "Chuhra." It is a historical term that was used to refer to Hindu converts to Christianity during the British rule in the sub-continent. Most of these converts were untouchables and were not treated well by the Hindus. This term for Christians has been imported and it signifies Christians as low caste citizens.
Q: It is interesting you mention this because in 1947 when Pakistan was established, it was established as the "home of the pure" -- the land of the pure -- but at the same time the first president stated that Christians should be free to visit their churches and pray. Can Christians live their faith openly? Can they express their faith?
Gill: I can tell people that I’m a Christian but I cannot go and try to make someone a Christian -- especially a Muslim. You see, we do not have anti-conversion laws in Pakistan, but the society in general would not tolerate a person getting converted.
Q: What would happen to you as a Christian if you were found to be working to convert? And what would happen to a Muslim?
Gill: There have been cases in the past, if I recall, where people have been killed or attacked by their fellow citizens for converting to Christianity.
Q: Have you in your law cases encountered, with the American Center for Law and Justice, these issues about Muslims converting to Christianity who have come to you for legal advice and legal support?
Gill: Not in particular, but we have cases. When I was working in Pakistan, we had a number of blasphemy cases where we represented people. In my work with the American Center for Law and Justice, we basically provide legal assistance to Christian minorities in Pakistan. We had a case in Pakistan where a pastor’s son was accused of committing a robbery by the local police. A number of people were arrested. The police released everyone else -- all the Muslims -- except the pastor’s son. He was tortured and they broke his back. We are representing this young man. He cannot walk. It is a terrible situation. The police threatened him with death if he brings charges against them in front of the judge. We are dealing continuously with these kinds of cases of discrimination and this is a case of discrimination. The very fact that they released everyone else, detained, and tortured him instead of bringing him to court and charging him and allowing the court to decide. This is the reason why we have courts. Unfortunately the police act as judge and jury because he is a Christian.
Q: It’s very sensitive what you are working with because it’s addressing culture; it is addressing faith and the law within that particular culture. It must be tricky for you?
Gill: It is difficult. It worries me sometimes about my security because you are dealing with the police and politics. In another case, in Gojra, people were killed: Six were burned to death and two were shot. In that case, numerous Muslims were accused of vandalism and the murder of Christians. It was a Muslim-Christian situation where a Christian family had a dispute with a Muslim family. The Muslim family decided to go public and basically brought a formal charge of desecration of the Quran against the Christian family. This was announced in the mosque. A mob gathered and burned and killed them.
Q: Do you find that as the situation becomes more and more tense between the international community and the situation, for instance, in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as having repercussions within your landscape -- between the Christians and Muslims?
Gill: You see, 20 years or more of the blasphemy law in Pakistan has instilled in people that punishment for insulting Islam is death. So, rather than going to the court, people have taken the law into their own hands. Now, coming to your point: Islam is also a community-oriented religion, which is a very good thing, but at the same time, when they see these wars against another Muslim state like Iraq or Afghanistan, they feel a responsibility and solidarity with those Muslims and then they try to exact vengeance on the local Christians because they perceive these Christians as American agents. This is one factor, I would say, that is important to consider as to why there is an increase of violence toward Christians.
Q: We’ve been talking a lot about the difficulties but there must also be stories where you have support between the Muslim and Christian communities or perhaps stories where Muslims have taken the Christians into their homes where they might have been otherwise attacked or under difficulty?
Gill: There are a lot of Muslim NGOs. They are liberal and want to help, but at the same time, if they want to help Christians or other minorities they are going against their fellow Muslims and that also threatens their existence. So basically there are only Christian organizations that represent these victims. Some Muslim organizations do work with the Christian organizations to assist the Christians.
Q: So an organization like yours plays not only a legal role, but also plays a role of advocacy which is important because it brings greater pressure to bear, for example, on the Pakistani government to respect their own laws and to encourage these laws in favor of all minorities within Pakistan?
Gill: The American Center for Law and Justice provides legal assistance to Pakistani-based organizations that we are working with. We also have written a petition to the United Nations arguing that all these incidences are a violation of international law and Pakistan is obliged to observe international human rights laws. And yes, we are engaged in public discussion as well and we recently had a meeting with the Pakistani embassy officials and informed them about these events. I hope that they will do something to bring justice to the victims and prosecute the perpetuators of acts based on religion.
Q: Many of the local Christians have given up, packed their belongings and have left. Why are young people leaving today? And what kind of threat does this pose for the Christians in Pakistan?
Gill: We need to empower the local Christians in Pakistan. And the way to do it is through education. The best schools in Pakistan are Christian schools -- Catholic and Anglican. They both provide the best education, but they, at the same time, provide education to mostly Muslims. The problem with that is that if you do not provide a good education to Christians, they do not get good jobs. They remain illiterate. They then do not have any influence within the society and are easy targets. So when they become easy targets, it is easy to exploit them because they cannot come after you. They can’t retaliate. They cannot defend themselves.
Q: Is there hope for the Christians? Is there hope for your country?
Gill: Yes, I do have hope but we, of course have to be prayerful about all this. We need a lot of prayers for both Christians and Muslims in Pakistan. Prayers especially for the Muslims there that God will give them discernment, knowledge and a spirit of tolerance and I believe that this can only be done with the power of the Holy Spirit. After that, we need to educate and empower the local Christians so that they can stand for themselves.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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