After Pakistan responded in kind to India's nuclear tests with five underground blasts of its own, speculation around the world focused on the specter of a nuclear arms race in South Asia. The tension led to reports of renewed clashes between Indian and Pakistani soldiers at the disputed border in Kashmir. These in turn prompted think-tankers in Washington to ponder not just another Indian-Pakistani conventional war, which would be the fourth since the 1940s, but an even bigger issue: Would such a war go nuclear?
That question has received enormous coverage over the past week. What's been overlooked is another explosion, the internal strife in Pakistan involving its own Christian population. On May 15, nearly 700 Christians were arrested by Punjab police forces. The Christians were taken into custody after they called for a repeal of Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws. Those laws invoke the death penalty or life imprisonment for words or actions against the Koran or Mohammed. They are used with regularity to victimize non-Muslims.
Police arrested 595 Christian demonstrators in Lahore and another 73 in Rawalpindi, according to the news service Compass Direct. "All the arrested were beaten up severely on their arrival at the police station," reported the Karachi English-language newspaper Dawn the following morning.
Thousands of Christians in the Punjab, a province of northeastern Pakistan where most of the nation's Christians live, stayed home from work, wore black armbands to morning prayer services, and flew black flags over their homes to support the May 15 strike. Eyewitnesses in Lahore said police mounted full-scale baton charges aimed at the crowd. They shot tear gas and bullets into the air in an effort to disperse as many as 1,500 Christians marching to the Punjab regional government building. In addition to the arrests, 200 were injured.
Pakistan has 2 million self-identified Christians, a number that includes both nominal and serious believers. They are a clear minority, less than 2 percent of the population, in a country of 135 million. For them, the mass demonstrations were unprecedented. They began after the discovery on May 6 of Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph's body, found outside a Sahiwal courthouse with a note indicating he had committed suicide to protest the anti-blasphemy laws. His death came nine days after the Sahiwal court's Judge Rana Abdul Ghaffar sentenced a Christian, Ayub Masih, to death for alleged blasphemy.
Since then, Muslims, supported by the police, have clashed with Christian demonstrators with growing intensity. Even after the Punjab arrests, an estimated 10,000 mourners gathered outside the cathedral in Faisalabad May 17 for the bishop's funeral, singing hymns and chanting slogans against the laws. A banner waving over the bishop's coffin proclaimed, "Bishop, your blood will bring a revolution!"
Nearby, about 500 Muslim extremists rampaged through a Christian neighborhood, burning shops and homes and terrorizing hundreds of residents. But it was the Christians who were brought to heel. Several were arrested, one of them for insulting Islam when a rock he allegedly threw hit an Islamic inscription on a shop sign.
It took police two days to restore order to Faisalabad. In all the protests, three men were reported killed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged protesters to "show tolerance for each other's religious beliefs." But legislator Ejaz ul-Haq vowed: "Even if 100,000 Christians sacrifice their lives, the blasphemy law will not be repealed."
Feeling within the broad Christian community, at this point, is "divided," according to one church leader who reported to WORLD on the protests. (He asked that his name not be used because he has previously been arrested for church activities.) Some want the law repealed through peaceful means; others, calling themselves "Sipha-i-Masih," or Guardians of the Messiah, say they are ready to take up arms for the cause. All are agreed upon wanting the law changed.
Many also agree that the bishop's death marks a turning point in the campaign against the anti-blasphemy laws. The nature of his death, however, remains controversial. Government investigators are looking into the possibility that the bishop was murdered. According to Dawn, the night watchman at the courthouse told authorities that he saw a car stop in front of the courthouse and two men throw a body in front of the gate.
Catholic officials seemed to accept the suicide scenario. Archbishop Armando Trindade of Lahore, president of the Pakistani bishops' conference, said Mr. Joseph "was prepared to offer his life for the abolition of the laws repeatedly misused against innocent minorities." But the church leader who spoke to WORLD, and was personally acquainted with Mr. Joseph through his pastoral work, did not think Mr. Joseph would take his own life. "The body is the battlefield for our destiny, and John Joseph knew that," he told WORLD. "Why would he intentionally destroy his body?"
Mr. Joseph chaired the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Pakistani bishops' conference. He gained a wide reputation for community service as well as outspokenness on mistreatment of Christians. On May 6 he attended a prayer meeting for victims of the blasphemy law, then visited the Ayub family. That night he walked with a priest to a site near the courthouse where someone attempted to shoot Mr. Ayub last November as he awaited trial on the blasphemy charges. That's the site where the body of Mr. Joseph would be found.
Pakistan's multi-faith blasphemy laws have gradually been amended to protect only the Koran, the prophet Mohammed, and Islam as a whole. Anyone who insults-directly or indirectly, by spoken or written word-the "holy personages of Islam" faces three years' imprisonment. For the Koran, it is life imprisonment. For Mohammed, it is the death penalty.
Other forms of discrimination exist. Since 1985 Christians have been prohibited from voting for Muslim parliamentary candidates. This relegates them to second-class citizenship by forcing them to vote for minority candidates with little hope of victory. Christians are not allowed to defend themselves or testify in Islamic courts. Once charged under blasphemy laws, a defendant must hire a Muslim lawyer who will plead the case before a Muslim judge.
Mr. Ayub (many Christians take the surname "Masih"), 31, was imprisoned Oct. 14, 1996. He has been held since then without bail. A Muslim neighbor accused him of saying, "If you want to know the truth about Islam, then read Salman Rushdie." Mr. Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses. When Mr. Ayub was arrested, 15 Christian families were also expelled from Mr. Ayub's village. They say the anti-blasphemy law was used as a way to settle a local land dispute. "Fear and a sense of helplessness has gripped the lives of Christians in the country," said the church leader.
On April 27, Mr. Ayub was sentenced to death and fined the equivalent of $2,500. His lawyer was not present when the verdict was announced. During the turmoil surrounding Mr. Joseph's death, Lahore's high court suspended Mr. Ayub's death sentence. No one has yet been executed under the anti-blasphemy laws, but at least one of those convicted was later killed. Others have been exiled. Oklahoma-based Voice of the Martyrs reported that a fatwa, or Islamic decree, promised a $10,000 reward for the killing of Mr. Ayub. In the present climate, the execution of Mr. Ayub may be as volatile as a bomb blast.
-with reporting by Edward E. Plowman