Book Reviews (English)

The Targeting of 'Minority Others' in Pakistan

Authors: Fernandes, D., Lewis, N., Baluch, F.M., Singh, R., Takechandani, K., and Greenwood, R. 

Publisher: Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman: The British Pakistan Christian Association (BPCA), London, 2013

Pages: 512

The Targeting of ‘Minority Others’ in Pakistan is an encyclopaedic compilation of articles by six authors, each steeped in the subject matter they address. Each contributor writes passionately, in a no-holds-barred manner about, what they perceive to be, the unfair targeting of a group of people in Pakistan simply for being ‘other’. Individually it is a cry of each targeted group; collectively it is a lamentation of a people who have failed to reach the ideals of nationhood, even nearly seventy years after being declared an independent and sovereign state and, as a result, who have continued to marginalize and torture the very elements which could have helped her towards that ideal (and indeed have desperately tried to do so).

The book is well researched with one thousand three hundred and sixty three references.  The sources quoted in support of its thesis include, among others: US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Amnesty International (AI), Genocide Watch, The Human Rights Watch World Report, Nazir S Bhatti’s, ‘The trial of Pakistani Christian Nation’, other magazines, newspapers and extensive material from the Internet.

It is a courageous work as it not only showcases a myriad of human rights abuses against the minority ‘others':  Ahmadis, Shi’as (in general), Hazara Shi’as (in particular), Ismailis, Tribals, Pashtuns, Mohajirs, Dalits, Zikris, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Afghan Refugees, Balochs, Sindhis, other indigenous and sexual minority ‘others’ like eunuchs, transgenders and even females, but also pulls out and lays bare some of the skeletons hidden in Pakistan’s (proverbial) closets of history. The massacre of Bengalis in 1971 was a targeted ‘other’ shamefully claimed to be ‘a minority’ when in fact the population of the, East Pakistan, as the area was then known, was, an electoral majority.   Then on 28th May 1998 when Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests in Raak Koh areas of Chaghi district, Baluchistan, it was presented as a celebratory event for the whole nation. No one had, according to this account, taken the Baloch people or their leaders into confidence prior to the event. They, to this day, consider the choice of their land by the Pakistan establishment to be a reflection of the perceived ‘otherness’ of the Baloch people. In fact, the contributor of this section of the book claims that the Eastern Balochistan was ‘invaded’ by Pakistan on 27th March 1948 and that some Baloch leaders, i.e. the younger brother of Khan of Kalat started the struggle against the occupation of Balochistan which continues to this day.  Similar claims of Pakistan ‘invading’ Sindh province are also alluded to elsewhere in the text.  Due to the dire human rights situation, the Asian Human Rights Commission in its, Pakistan: The State of Human Rights in 2011 report explicitly referred to Pakistan as a dysfunctional state and explained the reasons.

The history and historicity of the so called ‘Blasphemy laws’, along with their ‘evolution’ over time from the simple laws ‘of offences relating to religion’ (provisions 295-298 Indian Penal code of British Raj) through to 295 A, B, C, 298 B and C where the interests of only one religion, and that also only as interpreted by the ruling majority, are protected, has left the international legal world aghast for words.  However, the stick-wielding, slogan-shouting self-righteous who hold sway over Pakistan’s masses are happy to keep harassing, imprisoning and killing their own people as ‘others’. These laws can conveniently make anyone the ‘other’ for the purpose of targeting them or their property. (This has been shown to be the case in many such cases.)  The leaps of legal substance covered and the change in the quantum of penalties and punishments stipulated by these laws defy logic.

The volume is also very critical of many governments and national and international organizations, and does not shy away from putting the blame fairly and squarely where it belongs. For example, on p 201, the contributor decries the ‘lack of transparency’ by the US, Saudi Arabian and Pakistani governments, NATO, the Pakistani armed forces, the ISI, and US intelligence agencies and special forces, IMF and the governing civilian elites as well as certain religious organizations and religious militias.

The book is not only a depressing catalogue of abuses and issues against the minority others of Pakistan, it also gives a list of recommendations to end many of these abuses, such as the list of recommendations found on p263-4, concerning the kidnapping and forced conversions of Hindu girls and young women, ‘Recommendations Regarding Kidnappings for Ransom Cases of Hindus’, and those regarding disparate treatment of scheduled caste populations.

It is noted, with regret that, despite its academic and scholarly merits, lack of an index severely limits its usefulness. In addition the font size 8 is not easily readable by most.  This reviewer hopes that the future editions of this work will overcome one, if not both, of these hurdles. Its deficiencies notwithstanding, for any passionate student, or ardent scholar, the book is a storehouse of facts, facts and more facts. The referencing is great, though what is presented as fact by the authors may not necessarily be accepted by readers as such: some ‘facts’, can be, and undoubtedly will be, seen by at least some readers as extreme distortions of mainline history. Of course every reader, like every writer, has a right to his (her) biases.

In my opinion, probably no book reviewer, and certainly not this one, can do justice to a work of this complexity by offering a single review. The book has many layers of messages, and depending on which ‘minority other’ the reader identifies with, it gives a different message. However, for any fair minded, devout and patriotic Pakistani, its message leaves an indelible impression of deep sorrow, unquenchable anger, and a hopeless sense of despondency.As a Christian from Pakistan, I found the chapter 7.14, (p 303 – 430) entitled, ‘A non-exhaustive account of incidents of persecution, oppression and discrimination against Christians in Pakistan from the mid 1990’s on’, to be very potent as the Christian community of Pakistan have left no stone unturned to serve Pakistan at every conceivable level of social, political and institutional levels.

In all honesty, I cannot say that anyone will ‘enjoy’ this book. However, I do, in the strongest possible manner, recommend it to everyone who considers himself (herself) to be endowed with the moral spark of fairness, and wants to see a more just world. I further believe that there needs to be a warning written on the book stating: Graphic contents of blood and gore, some may find the contents of this volume very distressing, and therefore it should not be read by those who believe (or want to believe) in only the idealistic and rosy view of Pakistan.

Sermon in Blood

Sermon in Blood: Sacrifice and Struggle of Bishop Dr John Joseph, a symbol of Christian-Muslim Harmony

Author: Prof Gulzar Waffa Chaudhry

On May 6 1998, at 9:30 pm, Dr John Joseph, the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan, committed suicide in front of a Court in Faisalabad that had sentenced a Pakistani Christian man (Ayub Masih) for alleged blasphemy. The Bishop's last words, just as he pulled the trigger of the gun held to his own temple, were addressed to him: "Ayub I am offering my life for you".

 On 5th April 1994 Manzoor Masih of Gujranwala, accused of blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam was gunned down by unknown assassins. During the incident his co-accused Salamat Masih (a minor),  Rehmat Masih and  a mutual friend John Joseph (of Lahore) also received critical injuries. The funeral for Manzoor Masih was held in the Catholic cathedral of Lawrence Road, Lahore, on 7th April and was attended by people representing all walks of life,  and of various faiths and creeds. Bishop John Joseph at the conclusion of the ceremony had stepped forward to the coffin, kissed the feet of dead body of Manzoor Masih and addressing it said, "I wish, I had died in your place." The funeral procession then moved on to the Christian cemetery where he was returned, "dust unto dust".

In January 1995 twelve-year old Salmat Masih and his relative Rehmat Masih both co-accused of the late Manzoor Masih were sentenced to death in the session court Lahore. (Death sentence to a minor is against the U.N. conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory). After a dangerous and convoluted legal battle, the accused were acquitted of  the charges on 23rd February 1995. The acquitted Salmat Masih and Rehmat Masih were flown to Germany on asylum to save their lives from blood thirsty extremists.

On 14th October 1996 Mohammad Akram, a Muslim, registered a case against twenty-five year old Christian, Ayub Masih of Arifwala (District Pakpatan), accusing him of having said to him and his Muslim companions to read Salman Rushdi's Satanic Verses as well as uttering other blasphemous remarks. The real reason was that the Christians, as well as the Muslim residents, were given residential plots by the government and this was an easy and sure-shot way of ensuring that the Christians would vacate their rightful plots so that the Muslim land grab mafia could take their possession. It was the culmination of this case which lead the Bishop to lay down his life, in a manner described in  Sermon In Blood.

The author details the last ten days of the Bishop, beginning from 27th April when Rana Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Sessions Judge of Sahiwal, awarded death penalty to Ayub Masih under  Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code. This unjustified verdict caused the Bishop to write a 19 page letter the next day, in which he narrated the events and  wrote "I shall count myself extremely fourtunate, if...Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people..." (p 13 of the said letter). The letter was faxed to Father Seige at Rome on 29th April. There were ample hints in those last ten days that the Bishop was contemplating self-sacrifice though he never stated it in direct terms. And then when he felt the time was right he asked his chauffer to drive him to the session court where Ayub Masih had been sentenced, and scarified his life in protest, in pursuance of what he earlier had termed "The Final Step against the 295-C".

In addition to providing great detail of Ayub Masih's case, the book also catalogues many other atrocities committed against the Christian's of Pakistan. For example, on 5th/6th February 1997 Shantinagar,  a Christian village in the Khanewal district, was burned just after 48 hours after Pakistan Muslim League was declared the winner in the elections.

In my view the title of this relatively short treatise is as powerful as the saga it has endeavoured to preserve for posterity. Being a powerful orator and an accomplished writer, the Bishop had preached many a sermon from the pulpit. But his very last sermon, which was neither written in ink, nor orated from a pulpit, was heard the world over.

When these events were unfolding this reviewer was in Pakistan, and can recall with acute vividness, the shock waves it sent through the nation and especially the Christian community including Catholics and the Protestants.

The champion of Christian-Muslim harmony had come to the end of a blind alley in his struggle and could no longer bear the pain of seeing innocent sheep of his flock being sent to the slaughter house. Along with the author, I believe, considering all the circumstantial evidence, as well as his passion for justice, his suicide must be seen as a self-sacrifice for a cause. The author enlists eleven other prominent personages in the chapter entitled self-sacrifice for Liberation, and ends it with these words:

 And the last, thereafter, is the self-sacrifice for Bishop John Joesph. He, as hinted by him earlier "astonished" the government by offering the sacrifice of his own life, with his own gun, triggered by his own hand. With a fatal protest fire in his own head, he marked that the human rights situation was much worse, in Pakistan than it apparently looked. In his last meeting in a Catholic Church of Sahiwal (formally Montgomery) he said. "Christians in Pakistan are being held in  a "death-sentence blackmail" by the Blashpemy Law, under which their small businesses are being taken over and their property is being seized and the situation is such that there womem are not safe. (p83

Socrates, in his own set of circumstances, before drinking the cup of poison  had said "perhaps then in this way it is not beyond reason that a man ought not to kill himself unless God send upon him some necessity, such as mine in my present p

In addition to characterising the bishop, narrating his story, communicating his passion, the book also has a compilation of tributes offered at his tragic death. To counter balance these the athor also  enlists the responses from the government and her mouthpieces. The then Information Minister Mushahid Hussain Sayed, stated "The minorities are getting full protectin under law, constitution and under the Islam in Pakistan".

Strictly speaking the book is not written in any of the traditional styles of narrating events chronologically, or pursing an argument logically. This is not to say that it is historically inaccurate or that it is illogical, but to stress that it is more of a friend's tribute of sincerity and love, and as it is a work of overwhelming emotions more than of academic discipline, it does tend to be factually repetitious. Regrettably nor is it free from typographical errors. However, coming from a close friend, a fellow Pakistani Christian, and a partner in human rights struggle, it is an excellent  resource for sincere students of the plight that the Pakistani Christians find themselves in. Thus, in my view this book must be accepted in its totality in the spirit in which it is written (some might argue that 'compiled' might be a better description of this work).

Akhtar Injeeli

The Christian Minority in Pakistan: Problems and Prospects

The Christian Minority in Pakistan: Problems and Prospects

 Asimi, A.D.
Word Alive Press,  Winnipeg, 2010
ISBN- 13:978-177069-005-9
 pp 181
 


The Christian Minority in Pakistan is a concise profile, as well as a compact socio-political analysis, of the Christian Community in Pakistan. The book can be divided into three parts (my divisions):

1. Historical context (first three chapters)  2. The problems (chapters four, five and six)  3. Prospects and proposed solutions (chapters six and seven)

Asimi starts his thesis by doubting and/or outright denying the arrival of Apostle Thomas to India within the first Christian century. According to him, the first introduction of Christianity to the sub-continent was by the Roman Catholic Fathers in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century and did not succeed well even at this later date as, for all practical purposes, Christianity failed to take root in India.

The (more successful) reintroduction of Christianity, according to Asimi, is linked with the British Raj. In 1600 East India Company (EIC), owned by private citizens, started its operations with the sole aim of growth of trade and resolutely adopted a policy of avoiding any kind of Christian pursuit. The company’s activities gradually expanded into politico-military sphere. By 1857 it effectively controlled the political landscape of vast Indian territories. The (so called) Sepoy Mutiny of that year was the last concerted effort by the Indians to regain self-governance  and is recorded by their historians as The war of Independence, albeit a failed one.

On first September 1958 India was placed under the direct rule of the British Crown and stayed so until 14th/15th August 1947, when the British left it divided into an independent India and an independent Pakistan. The political subjugation of nearly three and a half centuries by the British left a bad taste in the mouths of most Indians. Though India had enjoyed some benefits from the Raj, for the most part the natives resented it. The foreigners left behind them some permanent reminders of their domination in the form of tall-steepled churches, Christian hospitals and educational institutions, as well as a small minority of Christians who practised, mostly a western style, Christianity. Asimi notes: Most of the non-Christian population looks upon all this as an alien legacy left behind by an alien power. They were averse to this power then, and they are averse to its legacy today. (p 3).  The rest of the book discusses the plight of Christians in Pakistan through this resented image.

Asimi divides the problems of the Christians in Pakistan – who according to him, make up 1.9% of the population (p 113) – into the following three broad categories. Firstly there is a serious lack of unity and cohesion in Christians. The main divide being between the Catholics and the Protestants, but then there are innumerable divisions within the Protestants, and this religious factionalism spills over into secular and national life. Secondly, there is a ‘sickening lack of effective secular leadership’ and this ‘is the greatest weakness of Christian Minority in Pakistan’ (p 116). Finally, there is a lack of integration of Christians into the socio-cultural milieu of the land, which according to the author, is the most serious part of the negative image of Christianity.

In the concluding chapters of his work, Asimi presents a set of prospects and solutions, which are a welcome addition to the debate about the plight of Christians in Pakistan, but cannot be swallowed wholesale by this reviewer.

My own studies and the evidence available to me lead me to radically different conclusions about the earliest introduction of Christianity to the Indian sub-continent as well as to the history of its Christian Church. I also do not agree to the figure of 1.9 % as being representative of Christian population in Pakistan (I believe the figure to be significantly higher), but as these two issues are not the main substance of Asimi’s thesis, I will refrain from commenting on them further.

The main point of the book is about identifying the problems of the Christians in Pakistan and offering a set of workable solutions, and it is this part that I would like to peruse here.

That ‘Christianity in Pakistan must have a Pakistani face’ is a valid and in fact a laudable suggestion and no one wants to dispute it. And I, for one, can even accept that, ‘The kind of confrontational/evangelical Christianity that was brought to the Indian-sub-continent by the West should become a thing of the past’ (p 148). However, it needs to be firmly established that Christianity predates the state of Pakistan and that its followers hold on to certain non-negotiable tenets: the irreducible minimums of the Christian faith. These cannot, and must not, be sacrificed in an attempt to produce a so called ‘Islam-Reconciled Christianity’. 

For example it appears that Asimi, under the influence of modern western scholarship, is willing to reconsider the sacrificial death of Lord Jesus Christ. On p 154 he enlists three views of Jesus’s crucifiction;  the Jewish view was that  his close companions ‘stole his dead body, concealed it, and spread the false news that He had risen from the dead’ (emphasis is mine). The Christian faith’s declaration that he ‘rose from the grave on the third day; ascended into heaven, now sits on the right hand of God and, in the fullness of time, will come again to judge the good and the bad’ is labelled as ‘The tradition that was created and was strenuously promoted among His few diehard followers’ (emphasis is mine). What is crucial here is that Asimi after mentioning the two above versions of the crucifixion and resurrection events, states that the ‘tradition which the Muslims follow is that, Roman soldiers …mistakenly arrested a man who did, or had been made to, look like Hazarat Issa… and hung on the cross  a common man in place of Hazrat Issa’. The disturbing part of this discussion, for me, is the author’s assertion of this to be ‘The very plausible tradition’ (emphasis is mine).  As stated above, while there is no serious harm in claimants of Christian faith in dressing in local/traditional attire, and modifying their worship styles to adapt to more eastern traditions, we as Christians cannot compromise the most fundamental doctrinal tenets of our faith to produce an ‘Islam-Reconciled Christianity’. In fact, any form of so called ‘Christianity’ which denies the sacrificial mission of Christ is anything but Christianity.  Asimi asserts ‘The Jesus of old orthodoxy is being replaced by a Jesus of history and humanity’ (p164) and echoes the statement of Anglican Bishop Spong, quoting him in his book “Christianity must change or die”(p.165). This reviewer would like to add his own sentiments here that, in an attempt to change Christianity let us not attempt to change the Christ of history and the Lord of our faith, as doing so will mean we die!(that is in every conceivable way).

 

For the purposes of this review, having pointed out the most important of the theological concerns, I would refrain from discussing other less weightier matters in this regard. Asimi’s theology aside, he does have some practical suggestions about the ground realities faced by Pakistani Christians. His advice, based on 2 Corinthians chapter 5 to be faithful and obedient to the government of time and to practice a ‘works orientated Christianity’ to become more relevant to the national milieu as, ‘Islam itself is a religion of works’ is worth consideration. This reviewer believes that over time the emphasis on salvation by faith alone has not been misplaced; however adding a greater emphasis to pursuing practical Christianity by committing charitable acts is a laudable goal.

Asimi while discussing the Challenges and choices facing the Christian community points out that ‘a prerequisite to any successful communal leadership is the development of clearly defined and achievable communal goals’ (This emphasis is author’s and this reviewer fully agrees). On p 127, he proposes the creation of a Christian Community Leadership Council (CCLC) ‘or something akin to it’.

He also points out that competitive leadership has proven ineffectual, and suggests that this proposed body ‘should be the sole vice o the Christian community in all secular maters.  And that in his view one of the first concerns of the leadership Council should be to seek international recognition for the Christians of Pakistan as an “insufficiently protected minority” and set up a Christian Legal Defence Fund.   The broad methodology of proceeding with this framework is outlined in the rest of the chapter under consideration.    

This reviewer’s overall impression of the book is that it fails the litmus test for orthodox Christianity and kowtows to a theological mishmash to improve the Christians’ acceptability among the Muslims by adopting a somewhat diluted version of their faith, labelling it as ‘Islam Reconciled Christianity’.  The reviewer’s view point here would be to, instead, create an agreement to disagree document, and then work with whatever can be accommodated on both sides.

Asimi, does raise some very valid points about the wordings used in Pakistan’s constitution and the way the so called blasphemy laws are effecting the lives of Pakistani Christians.  His overall assessment of the quantum of the unfairness meted to his people and his socio-political insights are both incisive and deep and I feel that the intellectuals of the Christian community of Pakistan would do well to give his proposals a fair and comprehensive consideration. As clear from the above review, this reviewer has serious reservations on the author’s historicity, statistical analyses and theological interpretations but has found that his identification of the problems and proposed solutions do add significantly to the debate about the Pakistani Christians’ future.

Akhtar Injeeli 

A Concise History of Pakistani Christians

The following book review has also appeared in The Minorities' View (Humsookhan) February 2013. To read the on-line version of the publication click: The Minorities' View .

A Concise History of Pakistani Christians

Emmanuel Zafar

Lahore: Humsookhan Publications,  2007

pp. 400

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Six decades and a bit, is not a long time in the history of any nation but it certainly is a very long time for a community that has suffered gradual and systematic marginalization out of its rightful place of the socio-political arena of her own nation. The roots of Christianity in the land that comprises Pakistan are older than both the state of Pakistan and the ideology that underpins its existence. It is no wonder then that the Pakistani Christians consider themselves and their history as an integral part of the state of Pakistan and her history.   It is unfortunate, however, that the commitments, contributions, and the sacrifices of the Pakistani Christians to their beloved homeland have been constantly ignored or downplayed at best, or blatantly and/or ashamedly denied at worst by some so-called national leaders and half-baked intellectuals. To put the record straight and preserve it for posterity, Emmanuel Zafar’s present book, A Concise History of Pakistani Christians, is a need fulfilled.

The gradual but continual marginalization of the Christian community has bred problems which have inadvertently become part and parcel of the never-ending crises in which the nation finds itself.  The process, once started, has progressively engulfed the whole nation. Though this is not the underlying theme of the book in consideration, I believe it serves as an appropriate background to the national scene which has made its writing and publication extremely essential. Unfortunately, it is not a timely book: it is a book that is overdue not by years but by decades.

The author, Emmanuel Zafar, a Christian lawyer, an internationally recognized journalist and a veteran politician, has charted the drifting tides which have led Pakistan to her present state of turmoil and intolerance.  He has lived through the history of Pakistan and this fact is well recognized in the blurb, that (the book) “also can be called the autobiography or ‘memoirs of the author as well’ ”.

One of the several meritorious aspects of the book is that it is a fairly comprehensive collection of significant Christians and their contributions in the various fields of national life i.e. literature, politics, industry, military, judiciary, education, medicine, nursing, music and arts among others. A few notable omissions or near-omissions are regrettable. This is a matter of this reviewer’s point of view and does not in any way mitigate the academic and scholastic usefulness of the volume.

Starting from c. AD 40 when St. Thomas is believed to have arrived in the subcontinent, the author has taken into account many notable Christians bringing the reader to the present. This, in itself, is a daunting task by any standard and is a remarkable accomplishment among a people who seem to suffer from the intellectual malady of forgetting their past heroes and showering praise on contemporary tyrants for acquiring short-term favours.

In my humble view, this volume should be read and carried by every senior Pakistani politician as a quick factual reference to the multi-faceted achievements and contributions to the country by her largest religious minority.  Had these facts been known to some high profile political figures of yesteryears, they would have been spared the embarrassment of statements which showed their ignorance and more than irritated the Christian community. I believe that our leaders and national representatives will do well to keep this book on their desks and refer to it as needed or risk making statements which will expose their anti-Christian bias and lack of historical knowledge. Silly statements have fast feet and long lives and the modern media has an insatiable appetite for exposing the ignorance of leaders. Hence this volume can save many from becoming the media’s laughing stock.

I would also like to submit that this information and research should be made part and parcel of the education material available for the Pakistani masses so that the bigotry and bias against the Christian community, by some of the uninformed members of the Muslim majority communities, may be diminished and hopefully an enlightened acceptance of indigenous Christians may instead prevail.  The dark clouds of suspicion and mistrust can only be cleared by the light of information and knowledge such as the one Zafar has provided in this volume.

Generally speaking Pakistani historians, including the few notable Christians, have covered the same ground over and over again.  Zafar’s work is unique in that he has recorded many unknown or very little-known personalities and has thus filled some significant gaps in a community’s profile. This makes the present work both a historical record as well as an almanac. It goes beyond merely recording history: it documents the lives of those who would generally have been bypassed by the usual historians and lost in the boundless ocean of national amnesia.

The indigenous Christians of Pakistan proudly identify with their homeland and, over the decades, have defended it along with their Muslim countrymen. Jinnah’s Pakistan was to be “The Republic of Pakistan”, a secular state based on the lofty values of equality and justice, where people of all religions would be able to freely practise their religion. This does not seem to be a picture of the present day Pakistan.

The book, though well-researched, unfortunately has some typographical and editorial errors, as acknowledged in the preface. They do not necessarily dampen the scholastic value of the work but do impact considerably on the pleasure of reading. With the author, I hope that in the future editions these issues will be resolved.

Christian institutions of learning have helped educate the leadership elite of Pakistan, and Christian military heroes have defended her borders with exemplary courage and blood. The record of all this and more is the content of the pages of A Concise History of Pakistani Christians. Overall, I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who cares to know, not what Pakistan has done for her Christian community but what her Christian community has done for Pakistan.

Akhtar Injeeli

Blasphemy

 
The true, heart breaking story of the woman sentenced to death over a cup of water

Author: Asia Bibi (with Anne-Isabelle Tollet)

London: Virgo Press, 2012

ISBN 978-1-84408-888-1

Pages 137

Blasphemy is a twenty-first century tragedy containing all the elements  of a timeless classic. This powerful narrative is “the voice” of   an illiterate Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, recorded (in the first person by Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French woman journalist, who is “the pen”.  The latter spent three years, 2008 – 2011, in Pakistan listening bit-by-bit to Asia’s story through an intermediary, without ever having the chance to meet the brave and innocent heroine of this on-goingsaga.

The chain of events which sealed the fate of this mother of five, and sent ripples of anger, disbelief and sympathy across the religious, diplomatic and humanitarian world, started with a simple argument: should a Christian woman be allowed to drink water from a “Muslim” well. The geographical context was a small village, Ittan Wali, in Sheikhupura District of the Punjab (Pakistan) where Asia Bibi, along with other village women, had been hand-picking falsa-berries in the scorching heat of 45 degrees Centigrade. The date was 14 June 2009.

Aroused by the claims of a Muslim woman, that Asia Bibi had insulted Prophet Muhammad while defending her right to drink water from the source from which all other women were drinking, the local imam had gathered a mob of enthusiasts the next day, who first physically beat Asia and then turned her over to the police.

On 19 June 2009 Asia Bibi was thrown in a windowless prison-cell to await her trial.  “The trial” took place on 8 November 2010 and the following verdict was pronounced by Judge Naveed Iqbal after full five minutes of deliberation:

‘Asia Noreen Bibi, in accordance with article 295c of the Pakistan penal code, the court sentences you to death by hanging and a fine of three hundred thousand rupees.’

Since then no appeal for the revision of the case, no plea for mercy, neither any political intervention nor any prayer, even of the Pope Benedict XVI himself has been able to change the fate of Asia Bibi.  However, two of the most prominent politicians, both belonging to the then ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have been assassinated publicly for having shown their sympathies for her.  Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, the largest and the richest province of Pakistan, visited Asia and helped her address a press conference, as a result  of which he was assassinated on 4 January  2011 by his very own body guard. Salman Taseer knew only too well about being imprisoned as he himself had experienced the prison treatment under the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

The second high profile figure to pay for his life was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for minorities and the only Christian Minister in the federal government. He visited Asia in the prision and gave her hope by promising to try his best to acquire presidential pardon, from Asif Ali Zardari. The pardon could not be granted as the legal complexities of the system dictate that the case first has to go all the way to the supreme court of Pakistan, and a verdict handed, before the president can intervene. This long winded process could take years but, for his intentions and the actions of siding with Asia Bibi, Shahbaz Bhatti did not have to wait  that long. On 2nd March 2011 he was brutally gunned down in the capital city, Islamabad, on his was way to his office. His funeral mass was held in the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, in Islamabad. Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih attended the funeral disguised as a choir member.

This is the chronicle of   madness that prowls the land in the guise of sacred law and religious devotion, two of the highest institutions in civilized human society. The mockery and ridicule in addition to absolute disgust such behavior brings to the nation is absolutely lost on stick wielding, slogan shouting enthusiasts.

The story, though tragic in every aspect has all the elements of a classic; religion, utter human deprivation, courage, love, mob insanity and above all hope; living hope against all conceivable odds. Hope that is the greatest hallmark of all true followers of Jesus. The story even has the modern day equivalents of royalty; powerful figures like Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State (USA), Monsignor Anthony Rufin, Archbishop of Islamabad, Syed Muhammad Abdul Khabir Azad, the imam of Badshahi mosque, governors, ministers and even the Pope.       

Blasphemy highlights the plight of vulnerable citizens of The Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  As a model of vulnerability, Asia Bibi fits the bill perfectly:  she is vulnerable thrice over, she is an illiterate woman, she is poor, and she is a Christian in a land where even many Muslims cannot agree on who is a true Muslim

The top government officials of Pakistan, including the President and the prime minister, have always resorted to the rhetorical stance that the misuse of blasphemy laws shall not be allowed and that the government shall ensure that no one takes the law into their own hand… Reading Blasphemy leaves one wondering which country they live in or think they govern. It surely cannot be the Pakistan of  the likes of Asia  Bibi.

Asia Bibi’s story has appeared in the newspapers and magazines of Pakistan in bits and pieces and has been superseded by other events since. The publicity it has received through the social media, electronic media and television screens has highlighted the plight of the human rights situation in Pakistan, especially in the context of its religious minorities. However, surpassing all these information sharing channels the book captures the timeline, the human drama, and the enduring threat that exists to the religious minorities of this nuclearly-armed nation.   It is  fast moving in pace, heart moving in content and absolutely a brilliant piece of writing.

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