Shahbaz Bhatti is not the only martyr in the struggle against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Pakistani Christians clash with the police following the protest suicide of Bishop John Joseph (AP Photo)

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have become untouchable. Even talking about changes to these laws, which have a mandatory death penalty, has been prohibited and those who dare to do so can suffer terrible consequences, as the murders of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti have demonstrated.

Christians have long been demanding the repeal of these laws, which are used as a tool by extremists and even some more “moderate” Muslims to settle personal grudges or seize the possessions of Christians. All minorities have been affected but Christians continue to be the main target. Innocent Christians have been killed in broad daylight, some burnt alive. Churches have been attacked and Christian villages have been burnt to ashes.

The laws were introduced in 1860 to protect all religions and places of worship but, ever since amendments were introduced in 1986, they have come to protect mainly the Koran and the sacred name of the Prophet Mohammad. Those punished under the laws continue to be non-Muslims, Christians especially.

One of the worst ever attacks against the Christian community occurred in August 2009, when eight Christians were burnt alive in Gojra. The reason was no more than the rumour that a Koran had been desecrated by a Christian.

After the attack, the judicial commission headed by Lahore High Court judge, Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, warned that the Gojra tragedy “must be taken seriously” and that the necessary steps had to be taken to prevent such attacks in the future. Nothing was done, however, and that has remained the case until today. Now the Christian community is grieving the cold-hearted murder of its only voice in Parliament.

The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is a tragic reminder of the suicide protest of Catholic Bishop, John Joseph. He campaigned tirelessly against the blasphemy laws and, after the murders of two Christians, Naimat Ahmer and Manzoor Masih, the bishop vowed that no other Christian would be killed because of the blasphemy laws during his lifetime. When Ayub Masih, a Christian, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 1998, Bishop Joseph shot himself outside the court where the sentence had been passed. It was his hope that this final act would bring the world’s attention to the terrible blasphemy laws and the immense suffering they continue to cause for Pakistan’s Christians.

His death shocked the Christian community but his sacrifice has never been forgotten and, seven years after the bishop’s death, Masih was freed by the supreme court of Pakistan and taken to a safe place by CLAAS.

The struggle the bishop began against the blasphemy laws was continued by Shahbaz Bhatti, who came from the same village of Khushpur in Punjab. He was no doubt inspired by the fearless commitment of Bishop Joseph and now both have become martyrs and heroes of the Christian community.

The universal condemnation of Bhatti’s murder has undoubtedly sent a strong message to the government that its neglect of human rights is unacceptable, but whether it takes on board that message is another question altogether. On February 2, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilliani signalled his capitulation before the religious bloc in the Parliament when he made it clear that the government would not make any changes to the blasphemy laws.

Still the government buries its head in the sand and continues to ignore this issue because it is more concerned with appeasing extremists than safeguarding the lives of its people, the basic task of any government. It ignores the cries of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and world leaders, and Christians continue to be attacked and killed in broad daylight, their villages sacked and burnt to the ground, and their churches desecrated. Even after the death of Shahbaz Bhatti the persecution of Christians has continued: since then at least four Christians have been allegedly accused of blasphemy, two Christians have been murdered and two churches have been attacked. However, this is not the end; instead it is going to continue and may get worse, as incidents like the burning of the Koran and the ban on the burqa has infuriated Muslims, especially in Pakistan.

Surely, after the deaths of so many people, the government can find the courage to do what is right. At the very least, that means removing the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy.

If the government fails to act, there will still be brave people who are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and campaign for change, but it would be so much better if the government were to make the changes now, instead of letting more people get killed.

It may be easy for Christians to lose hope but they are still looking to the heavens for that miracle to come. Shahbaz Bhatti and Bishop John Joseph have both given their lives for a just and peaceful future for Pakistan’s Christians and we must continue with the same courage and dedication.