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Intolerance grows

Shamil Shams, Karachi
March 11, 2013

Pakistani activists say that religious extremism and intolerance in their country are no longer isolated phenomena. The recent attack on Christians' houses in Lahore, they say, is a clear example.

Angry Pakistani demonstraters torch Christian's belongings during a protest over a blasphemy row in a Christian neighborhood in Badami Bagh area of Lahore on March 9, 2013 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

"The punishment for insulting the Koran or Prophet Muhammad is death. No Muslim can tolerate it," Ahmed Jehanzaib, a shopkeeper in Karachi's posh Defense area, told DW. The shopkeeper, however, said that those who torched more than 100 Christian-owned houses in the central Pakistani city of Lahore on Saturday, March 9, did not do the right thing.

"It is not right because those who did not commit the crime of blasphemy also suffered because of one person," Jehanzaib said, referring to Sawan Masih, a Christian, who allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammad the previous Wednesday. The police arrested him on Friday under the blasphemy law, but on Saturday, hundreds of Pakistanis decided to "punish" the Christians in the lower-middle-class Badami Bagh area of Lahore. They burnt over 125 houses, a church, and several shops, and forced the Christian families to flee the area. No casualties were reported.

Most Pakistanis condemned the Lahore incident. Mainstream political parties held demonstrations in solidarity with Christians, who make up about two percent of the 180 million people living in Pakistan, most of whom live primarily in the central Punjab province's impoverished towns. The Pakistani apex court has also started an inquiry of the incident.

Pakistani Christains react after Muslim demonstrators destroyed the homes of members of the Christian community during a protest over alleged blasphemous remarks by a Christian in a Christian neighborhood in Badami Bagh area of Lahore on March 9, 2013. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Christians condemn the weekend's violence in LahoreImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

But if you ask people on the streets whether they are in favor of the repeal of the controversial blasphemy law, their answer would most definitely be a no.

“It is not about amending or repealing the law (blasphemy law), or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished,” Ali Asghar, a student in Lahore, told DW.

S. Siddiqui, a secular Pakistani involved in trade business, thinks it is hypocritical on the part of his countrymen to believe in such "extremist ideas" and at the same time say that Islam is a peaceful religion. “If Islam teaches you tolerance and peace, then it should be manifested through your actions. Everybody says that religious minorities should be treated well, but when it comes to issues of blasphemy, even a common Pakistani starts behaving like a fanatic.”

But Pakistani Christians, Hindus and other religious and ethnic minorities are not interested in these debates. They fear for their lives in Pakistan and live under constant fear of persecution by the state and majority Sunni Muslims. All they want is protection of their lives and property from the government.

Pakistani Christians carry crosses during a protest against an Islamic cleric who had accused a Christian girl Rimsha of blasphmy, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 02 September 2012. (Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER)
Mentally disabled and under-aged girl named Rimsha was arrested in August on charges of blasphemyImage: picture alliance / dpa

Akram Gill, a local bishop in the Lahore Christian community, told the media that the mob which destroyed the Christians' property in Lahore was armed with hammers and steel rods and broke into houses, ransacked two churches and burned Bibles and crosses. "Poor people were living here. They have lost all of their belongings," he said. "Where can they go now?"

Mainstream intolerance

Asad Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan, and that many Pakistanis considered blasphemy an "unpardonable crime." He, however, said that the blasphemy law was not only about punishing those who insulted Islam, but also those who insulted other religions. In this regard, he said, Muslims were constantly committing blasphemy in Pakistan.

"Rights activists have always demanded that the blasphemy law be repealed. But people have become so intolerant that before the courts decide anything, people take the law in their own hands." He said that his organization had been organizing workshops on tolerance for common Pakistanis so that they should understand that all religions and all people deserved equal respect.

But how and when did Pakistanis become so intolerant towards other religions and their followers?

"There was no such issue prior to the 1980s, but when General Zia-ul-Haq came into power he Islamized everything and mixed religion and politics," Butt said.

Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed does not only blame the state. He told DW that what used to be comprised of a small section of society had now become mainstream.

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," he said. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society." He added that those who condemned such "barbaric crimes" had become a minority.

Legal discrimination

The blasphemy law in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, was introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the law is often implemented in cases which have little to do with blasphemy, however. Instead, they believe, the blasphemy law is used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis are often victimized as a result.

This photograph taken on October 31, 2012, Pakistani riot policeman walk past burning furniture that was set fire by an angry mob near a school following a protest alleging the school gave a test that insulted the Prophet Mohammed in Lahore. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Islamists have rioted at girls' schoolsImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Rights organizations say that religious minorities face increasing legal and cultural discrimination in Pakistan. Forced conversions and murders of Christians, Hindus and other minority groups are on the rise.

The HRCP recently reported that 2012 was one of the worst years for religious minorities in the country: Several people were charged with blasphemy, many places of worship were burnt down and houses were looted across the country.

One of the most violent attacks on Christians and their places of worship in Pakistan was carried out in 2009 in the central Gojra town of the Punjab when Muslims burnt more than 70 Christian houses and many churches, killing seven people, after a rumor that the Koran had been desecrated.

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