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Christians in Pakistan

March 16, 2011

A Pakistani jailed for blasphemy has died in prison, with his lawyer thinking it is a murder. As the crisis over the blasphemy law escalates, Asia Bibi who has been sentenced to death under the law fears for her life.

Pakistani Christians hold a rally to condemn the attack on Christians
Rights activists say a number of Christians have been murdered in jail by extremistsImage: AP

There has been a series of protest inside and outside of Pakistan over the country's strict blasphemy laws and human rights groups say a number of Christians convicted under the law have been murdered by extremists.

In the most recent case that is causing a storm of controversy, Qumar David, a man who had received a life sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan, has died in prison. According to an AsiaNews report, he had been sentenced in February 2010 after being accused by business rivals of making insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

Officials say he had been complaining of chest pains shortly before his death on Tuesday. A senior prison official has announced that David' death was caused by a heart attack.

Pakistani Christians chant slogans behind a banner reading,
Pakistani Christians have been demanding that the government take action to stop the violenceImage: AP

Despite the official statement, David’s lawyer, Pervey Chaudhry, says he is "100 percent" sure that it was murder but was unable to offer evidence. Perez told the BBC that his client had been "in perfect condition" the last time he saw him. "I have spoken to the family and we don't believe he died a natural death."

Prison official Ghulam Qadir Thebo, however, has said that prison doctors have ruled out murder. David's body has been sent to a hospital and an autopsy is planned to be carried out in the presence of his family members.

Human rights activists are demanding an investigation regarding the circumstances of his death. They believe David was repeatedly abused in jail.

The Catholic archbishop of Islamabad, Rufin Anthony, told Germany's Catholic News Agency, KNA, that David had been convicted through "false accusations". He is fighting to abolish the blasphemy law and says that the government’s hands are "tainted with blood."

Christian mom sentenced to death

A further controversial case involves Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who received the death sentence last year for blasphemy for supposedly making derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad.

Family members of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian minority women, who was sentenced to death by a local court for blasphemy
Family members of Asia Bibi, who fears she might be next on the murder listImage: picture alliance/dpa

Before and after her trial, she received support from two strong advocates against Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Pakistan's Governor of the province of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and Minister of Minority, Shahbaz Bhatti. The prominent politicians strongly opposed the law and were fighting for her release. They have both recently been assassinated.

Furthermore, a pro-Taliban Islamist cleric offered a reward of around 5,000 euros in to anyone willing to kill Bibi in jail.

A spokesman of the London office of the Pakistani human rights organization Masihi Foundation Asia said Bibi now fears for her life. Her lawyers, who work for Masihi, are also worried that Bibi might be next on the murder list of Islamic fundamentalists.

Masihi spokesman added that fundamentalists regard helping the victims of the blasphemy law as an act of blasphemy itself. For that reason employees and lawyers of the organization have ceased to make public appearances. "Our team is in danger. We are representing Asia Bibi," said the spokesman. "Therefore we are an easy target to attack."

"Anti-Christian foreign policy"

Meanwhile Cardinal Keith O'Brien of the Roman Catholic Church of Scotland has criticized the British government’s plan to increase aid to Pakistan without demanding a pledge for religious freedom in the Asian nation. The British government recently announced that aid to Pakistan would be doubled to more than 500 million euros.

Pakistani students chant slogans while holding placards reading
Students protesting against any attempts to change the blasphemy lawImage: AP

O'Brien urges the British Foreign Secretary William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. "To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy," O'Brien said at the launch of a report into Christian persecution by Catholic group 'Aid to the Church in Need'.

He also added that pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan and the Arab world to ensure that religious freedom is advocated, saying, "the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights."

Religious freedom a key issue

Britain's Junior Foreign Minister, Alistair Burt, responded to the criticism by pointing to efforts made by Britain's government to improve religious freedoms. "We share the cardinal's concern about the plight of Christians facing persecution," he said, adding that the effective promotion of human rights, including freedom of religion, is at the heart of the foreign policy of the British government.

A new human rights advisory group, which was set up by Foreign Secretary Hague, has pinpointed religious freedom as one of its key issues. Burt explained, "It is vital that Pakistan guarantees the rights of all citizens, regardless of their faith or ethnicity."

Controversial law

Under the Pakistani blasphemy law, making insulting comments, whether written or spoken, direct or indirect, of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is a crime and can be punished with the death penalty.

Pakistan's minister of minority Shahbaz Bhatti
Pakistan's Minister of Minority Shahbaz Bhatti was killed for his advocacyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan's population, have been especially concerned about the law, which offers them no protection. Liberal Pakistanis and human rights activists are also against the law, saying that it discriminates against the country's minority and encourages extremism. The government has said it had no intention of amending the law, as it is under intense pressure from religious parties who warn against any attempt to change it.

Many people have been convicted under the blasphemy law, but so far the death sentence has never been carried out by the state. Angry fundamentalists are, however, known to have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

Author: Anggatira Gollmer (kna, afp, Reuters)

Editor: Sarah Berning

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