Whoever wins today’s Pakistan elections, Christians and religious tolerance are likely to be the losers, as extremists press into the mainstream, calling for tougher blasphemy laws. Whatever the outcome, Release International will keep campaigning for the notorious blasphemy laws to be repealed
Whatever the outcome of Pakistan’s elections today [July 25], the country’s Christian minority are unlikely to be the winners.
The elections have seen a tilt towards religious extremism, with Islamist parties fielding hundreds more candidates than in previous years. One new party, the TLP, is campaigning on a ticket to kill blasphemers.
Release International, which supports persecuted Christians in Pakistan and around the world, has long campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. ‘These notorious laws are often used to target minorities and to take out rivals. Whatever the result of these elections, Release will continue to call for the blasphemy laws to be repealed,’ says CEO Paul Robinson.
Three main parties are contesting the polls: all are pro-Islam. The governing party is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), whose former leader is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif was jailed for corruption, following the leaking of the Panama Papers which alleged illegal offshore investments.
The PLM-N’s principal opponent is former cricketer Imran Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI). The third largest party, which could hold the balance of power, is the Pakistan People’s Party, (PPP), led by the youthful Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
In the background are a record number of Islamist parties, fielding more than 1500 candidates, and the ever-present Pakistan military, who some observers say are the nation’s real kingmakers.
Although overtly Islamist parties have seldom prospered in Pakistan’s elections, their influence is growing. While they are not expected to win many seats, they are shaping the agenda of the elections and the political rhetoric. Some are campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, linking corruption with Western education and values.
‘Death to blasphemers’
At their most extreme, the Islamist parties are campaigning for a strengthening of Sharia law and a harder line against blasphemy. A new party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), is calling for blasphemers to be put to death. Its election song has the lyric, ‘Hang them, hang them!’ and its slogan is ‘Death to blasphemers’.
TLP banners depict ‘holy warriors’ who have murdered people accused of blasphemy. These include Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer after he criticised the country’s blasphemy laws.
Salman Taseer’s son, Shahbaz, told the Guardian newspaper: ‘My father was a hero and a champion for change. He wanted amendments in this barbaric law. This law is persecuting people.’
In March 2011, the only Christian member of the cabinet was also shot dead for backing his call to change the blasphemy laws. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti had earlier received death threats for speaking out. Even to call for discussion on the blasphemy laws was, it seemed, an act of blasphemy.
The influence of these hard-line parties is having an impact on political campaigning across the board. Party leader Imran Khan has nailed his colours to the mast over the blasphemy laws. He said, ‘We are standing with article 295c and will defend it.’ 295c is the blasphemy clause that mandates the death penalty for any ‘imputation, insinuation or innuendo’ against Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
According to Al Jazeera, at least 74 people have been killed in attacks motivated by blasphemy accusations since 1990. Reports indicate a large increase in blasphemy cases since the 1980s, say Amnesty International: ‘A total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987.’
During the run-up to the Pakistan elections, considerations of Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, have been conspicuously absent. For any politician to call for her release or for the repeal of the blasphemy laws, would be to sign their own death warrant, and not just at the polls.
Asia Bibi has been on death row since November 2010 and her appeal has been postponed indefinitely. Extremists have offered a reward for anyone who kills her.
Few accused of blasphemy can live in safety, even if they are acquitted. Extremist vigilantes see it as their religious duty to put them to death.
Christian voices are conspicuously absent from the Pakistan elections. Even Lahore, with almost three-quarters of a million Christians, is fielding no Christian candidates. Observers say they would have little chance of winning. Nationally, only a few reserved seats are offered to representatives of minorities.
Pakistan’s Christian minority face harassment in a variety of ways. Hundreds of women and girls are abducted each year, and many are forced into marriages with Muslim men. Christians are harassed for wearing religious symbols and have been targeted by Islamic State terrorists and the Taliban. The most extreme case was the Lahore bombing in Easter 2016 of a children’s play area, frequented by Christians.
‘Repeal blasphemy laws’
‘Whatever the outcome of Pakistan’s election, it is unlikely that Pakistan’s Christian minority will see any reduction of the persecution perpetrated towards them by other Pakistani citizens,’ says Release Chief Executive, Paul Robinson.
‘Release international has been calling for many years for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which fuel religious hatred and are often used to target minorities. Release will continue to raise awareness of the terrible impact of those blasphemy laws and continue doing all it can to support Christians in Pakistan.’
Release is supporting families impacted by extremist violence in Pakistan. It is also equipping leaders and local Christians to deal with persecution and discrimination and to reach out and pastor in their communities.
This year, Release International is celebrating its 50th anniversary of serving the persecuted Church. Through its international network of missions Release International is active in more than 30 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.