ISLAMABAD: Blasphemy allegations against Christians in Pakistan are not just a religious issue, according to the country’s top Christian politician — they also show that the old feudal caste system has not gone away.
The position of the Christian minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation has come under the spotlight in the past fortnight with the arrest of Rimsha, a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning papers containing Koranic verses.
Anti-terrorist police with automatic rifles guard the large Islamabad home of Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was gunned down last year for speaking out against Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.
Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan, where the population is 97 percent Muslim, felt a rush of fear two weeks ago when Rimsha was arrested in a poor Islamabad suburb.
When furious Muslims threatened Christians in the area the next day after Friday prayers, Bhatti contacted imams to try to calm things down, saying if they had encouraged the worshippers, “it would have been possible to have another Gojra”.
Seven people died in the Punjab town of Gojra in 2009 when a Muslim mob burned Christian houses after a rumour that a Koran had been desecrated during a wedding service.
From Gojra to the 2011 murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who also backed reform of the blasphemy law, and the death sentence handed to Christian woman Asia Bibi in 2010, blasphemy cases have multiplied in recent years.
“What is happening is the misuse of this law,” said Bhatti.
Under the legislation, insulting the prophet Mohammad can be punished by death, while desecrating the Koran can earn a life sentence.
Bhatti said even if the law were changed, allegations of blasphemy provoke such visceral fury that people would take the law into their own hands.
In July a mob of 2,000 snatched a mentally unstable man from a police station in Punjab and beat him to death after he was accused of burning pages from the Koran.
Liberals in Pakistan are concerned that people use the law to make false accusations to satisfy their bigoted religious impulses or settle personal scores.
“This is a very difficult time for Pakistan, there is sectarian violence, there is extremism, there is terrorism,” said Bhatti.
“The people who want to destabilise the country, they can use easy victims. And many times, easy victims are Christians like in this case.”
But the cases are not solely a matter of religion, he said.
The fact that the majority of Pakistan’s three million or so Christians are also poor and stuck in menial, dirty jobs is not total chance: many originally came from the lowest ranks of the old caste system.
Discrimination and harsh treatment made these people receptive to the preaching of missionaries from the West, and the partition of India to create Pakistan in 1947 did not mean the end of social divisions.
“It is not just a religious problem. It’s a caste factor, because it is a certain group of people who belong to the poorest and most marginalised people,” Bhatti said.
“Unfortunately they are Christians and this caste system creates lots of problems.”
Christians are by no means the only victims of religious violence in Pakistan, where attacks by radical Sunni Muslim groups on minority Shiites and Ahmadis are on the rise.
No-one has ever been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, but the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a group formed by the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that since 1990 18 Christians, 16 Muslims, two Ahmadis and a Hindu have been killed on suspicion of blasphemy.
Solving the problem means promoting tolerance and helping the poor and the marginalised, Bhatti said, but there is a great deal of work to be done.
“You cannot change this problem in one month or two, it takes (a) long time,” he said.