Some Christians in Pakistan convert fear into safety
LAHORE, PAKISTAN—Dog-eared and tattered, the blue book is an inch thick and sits on a dented metal table in the corner office of Jamia Naeemia, an Islamic school tucked in a scattering of cement-walled homes and roadside shops.
Many believe the book offers the promise of safety and perhaps even a better chance at prosperity.
The book is a registry used to document religious converts to Islam and officials at Jamia Naeemia say business is brisk nowadays.
At least 20 to 25 former Christians adopt Islam each week by pledging an oath and signing a green and white document in which they accept Islam as “the most beautiful religion” and promise to “remain in the religion of Islam for the rest of my life, acknowledging that blessings are only from God.”
Human rights advocates say it’s no surprise some of Pakistan’s 3 million Christians are adopting Islam. These are vexing and dangerous days for the country’s religious minorities.
Last autumn, politician Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most prosperous province, began to campaign on behalf of a Christian woman named Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. On Jan. 4, with debate over the future of Pakistan’s blasphemy law at a fever pitch, Taseer was gunned down by one of his personal security guards.
Public reaction to Taseer’s assassination was stunning.
Pakistan’s lawyers, praised just three years ago for saving this country’s independent judiciary, showered Taseer’s assassin with rose petals on his way into court. A rally to celebrate his death attracted 40,000 in Karachi and thousands more posted tributes to the killer on their Facebook accounts.
“To be honest, I felt good when I heard he was dead; we got rid of him,” said Raghib Naeemia, an iman at Jamia Naeemia. “It’s very clear in the Holy Qur’an that if you say something nasty and harsh about the Holy Prophet, then you become a maloun (cursed) person. And we are supposed to round up those people and kill them very harshly.”
While Taseer was among several high-profile politicians who have argued the blasphemy law should be amended, human rights workers say the real issue is how often the law is misused.
An allegation of blasphemy shouted in the streets can, in an instant, whip a crowd into a frenzy and lead to assaults and dubious arrests.
In one recent example, a Shiite Muslim doctor last month was confronted in his Hyderabad office by a pharmaceutical salesman. After telling the supplier he wasn’t interested in buying anything, the salesman persisted, according to local news reports. The doctor tossed the salesman’s business card in a trash bin.
But because the salesman’s name was Muhammad — the same as the Muslim prophet — he complained to religious leaders that tossing his card the garbage was blasphemy.
The doctor was dragged out of his office and beaten by a mob. Then he was arrested by police and charged with blasphemy.
“No one feels safe right now,” said Nadeem Anthony, a Christian and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “People are scared.
If you want something from your neighbour or you are angry at him, you say blasphemy and that’s it.”
In the most famous case, the one that has transfixed the nation and led to Taseer’s killing, centres on Bibi, a resident of the Punjabi village of Ittanwali, west of Lahore.
While working in the fields last June, she was sent to fetch water. When some of the other woman refused to drink it because it had been carried by a Christian, a spat ensued about the merits of both religions. The other women later went to a cleric and complained that Bibi has blasphemed the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
A complaint was filed and Bibi was charged, convicted, and given a death sentence.
The spirit of McCarthyism hangs in the air like the clouds of dust that swirl though this historic city’s poor neighbourhoods.
In Lahore last week, a Christian woman got into a heated argument with her sister-in-law, a Muslim. The Muslim woman went outside their home and cried out that her relative had blasphemed against Islam. A group of protesters stormed into the home and beat the woman. One of the ringleaders later bragged that his own wife had hit the woman the hardest.
“Her hand is so swollen that she hasn’t been able to make rotis,” he told the Express Tribunenewspaper.
The Christian woman and her husband are now in hiding, the paper reported.
One of the results of this wave of anti-Christian activity unfolded on a sunny afternoon this week. Azra Mustafa, a 45-year-old housemaid, shuffled into the Jamia Naeemia and asked to speak to an imam. A recent convert to Islam, the housemaid and mother of six needed to get the proper documents to prove to her neighbours that she was no longer a Christian.
“It feels great,” she said. “I moved to a Muslim neighbourhood and now I feel like we are one family.”
Each day, Mustafa, whose husband remains Christian and now lives separately from his wife and children, wakes up to attend 5 a.m. prayers before she leaves for work four hours later. By the time she returns home at 7 p.m. from a job that pays her 2,500 rupees ($28) a month, darkness has fallen over her one-room home. After dinner, a teacher comes to her home to give Mustafa and her children 90-minute lessons on Arabic and the Qur’an.
Asked if she felt safer in the wake of her conversion, Mustafa replied, “of course.”
Mustafa sat patiently as the seminary’s staff and students hustled about, preparing to attend a rally scheduled for later that afternoon — a protest that featured at least 3,000 people who at one point chanted “death to Christians and the friends of Christians” as they marched through the heart of Lahore.
As Mustafa gathered her papers together and prepared to leave, Parvaiz Masih, a 23-year-old auto rickshaw diver, walked into the office. He hoped to convert that afternoon, and had already told friends he would now be known as Muhammad Parvaiz.
“I’ve been thinking about it for two or three years,” he said, wrapped in a heavy blue shawl. “About four days ago, I decided to do it.”
A group of a dozen young men studied Parvaiz and a visitor asked if Taseer’s murder and other publicized clashes involving Christians had played a role in his decision. Parvaiz shrugged meekly and wouldn’t answer.
It wasn’t long before another Christian, 26-year-old Naseer, entered Jamia Naeemia. With a crowd of men looking on, she, too, was hesitant to elaborate on why she wanted to follow Islam, but nodded when she was asked whether she believed she would be safer as a Muslim.
Adjusting a pin on the saffron-coloured dupatta that covered her face, Naseer said she had slipped away from her parents’ home earlier in the day to make her way to the seminary. When another visitor asked again whether her personal safety played a role in her decision, Nasreen flashed a look of anger and snapped, “there’s no question.”
It was clear why Naseer and others were hesitant to speak more freely about their concerns over safety. An iman for the madrassa said he would not proceed if someone gave safety as a reason for their conversion.
Peter Jacob, executive director of an advocacy organization funded by the Catholic Church, said an average of 400 Christians annually converted to Islam between 2005 and 2010. In 2011, he expects that number to swell. “It’s going to be very different in these hostile conditions,” Jacob said. “People have no faith in the police or justice system and the kind of fear that exists now was never there before.”
It isn’t only Christians in Pakistan who are feeling uncertain nowadays.
The blasphemy law is playing a role even in battles between Muslims, who make up about 97 per cent of Pakistan’s 180 million people.
Zafar Hilali, a former Pakistani ambassador and foreign secretary, insists the venom over blasphemy has more to do with Pakistan’s class divide than religion.
“The poor are becoming increasingly desperate and don’t know what to do; some religious leaders that are using that,” Hilali said, adding that the instability adds to their influence and political sway.
Source: The Star