Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws Claim Three More Christians

Cafeteria worker, couple convicted without basis under widely condemned statutes.

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 10 (CDN) — A Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Pakistan’s widely condemned “blasphemy” laws last week, and another Christian convicted without basis under the same statutes the previous week received the same sentence.

In Kasur, Ruqqiya Bibi and her husband Munir Masih were sentenced on March 3 to 25 years of prison under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for defiling the Quran. They had been arrested by Mustafabad police in December 2008 for touching Islam’s sacred scripture without ritually washing.

Punishment for defiling the Quran is “life imprisonment,” which means 25 years in Pakistan.

Prosecution witnesses accused Ruqqiya and her husband of using the Quran as part of black magic, and that in the process Ruqqiya had touched it without it without ritual cleansing. They also claimed that the couple had written the creed of Islam, or Kalima-e-Tayyaba, on the walls of their house.

Tahir Gul, a lawyer of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), told Compass that the Christian couple had not used the Quran for black magic. He said the matter arose out of a quarrel between Muslim and Christian children and turned into a clash of their parents. Because Pakistan’s blasphemy statues are so commonly used to settle such personal scores, they are widely condemned by human rights advocates and legislators around the world.

After police investigation, the couple was further charged under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws, which criminalizes any derogatory remark – spoken, written or by visible representation – against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The minimum punishment for such remarks is also “life imprisonment” of 25 years, but the law also allows for the death penalty.

Gul said the court had absolved the couple of charges under Section 295-C, as no evidence was found of them blaspheming Muhammad. He said that when the crime report was initially filed, the couple was accused only of defiling the Quran and not of blaspheming Muhammad.

The attorney said the case would be appealed in the Lahore High Court.

In Karachi, the Additional District and Sessions Court on Feb. 25 sentenced another Christian, Qamar David, to 25 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) after he was convicted without basis of sending blasphemous text messages in May 2006.

David was convicted under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statues for “injuring religious feelings of any community,” and also under Section 295-C for derogatory remarks against Muhammad. Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A is life imprisonment, and for Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. David received the sentence of life in prison.

His lawyer, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, told Compass that the conviction was without basis as all 16 witnesses at the trial said that not David but the owner of the cell phone, who is also the subscriber to the SIM card through which they received the blasphemous messages, was guilty. The SIM card and the cell phone are owned by a Muslim, Munawar Ahmad, who was named with David, he said.

“In spite of these facts, the court has absolved him [Ahmad] of all charges,” Chaudhry said.

In May 2006, two First Information Reports (FIR) were filed against David in Karachi under sections 295-A and 295-C. The first was filed under both sections by Khursheed Ahmed Khan, a travel agent, at the Sadar Police Station in Clifton. David still awaits trial on the second FIR, also under sections 295-A and 295-C, filed by Hafiz Muhammad Hamid at the Azizabad police station in Gulberg Town.

David has never been granted bail since his arrest in 2006, and he is in Central Jail in Landhi. Chaudhry said that he would file an application in the Sindh High Court for a hearing on the second case, because no trial date has been given despite the lapse of three and a half years.

“I feel that Qamar will also be convicted in the lower court again, because we see no signs of impartiality,” he added.

David’s family members criticized the blasphemy laws and his conviction, holding a protest on Feb. 28 with the help of Save the Churches’ Property Welfare Association and the United Church of Christ. They said that David was innocent and that the court was biased.

Chaudhry said that David lived a harsh life in the jail, where he was often threatened and once attacked by fellow inmates. The attorney said his client has faced obstacles in pursuing his case, and that extremists accused him of being a supporter of “blasphemers” because he was a Christian.

“Muslims raised slogans of triumph of Islam outside the court premises on the day David was convicted,” Chaudhry said. “The judgment was expected against David due to pressure on the judge, Jangu Khan.”

David had worked in the cafeteria of a hospital in Karachi, where he served drinks and food to customers, before he was accused in May 2006 of sending blasphemous messages.

Report from Compass Direct News 

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID

Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News