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Dictator or deliverer?

"Dictator or deliverer?" Continued...

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

The most notorious blasphemy provision, found in Section 295-C of the lawbooks, reads: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death and shall also be liable to a fine."

Parties of the left and right, civilian and military, used the laws to justify further intrusions. Until recently Christians could vote only in separate elections held for "minorities." Government routinely confiscated church-owned property.

"The Pakistan People's Party under the late democratic president Zulifqar Ali Bhutto handicapped us by taking our institutions, and the Pakistan Muslim League under military general Zia Ul Haq punished us by instituting the discriminatory laws like the 295-C blasphemy law," said Pakistani-American Victor Gill, who directs Philadelphia-based Christian Voice of Pakistan. "The dirge of Pakistani Christians speaks for itself-abandoned and forgotten by Westerners who converted them to Christianity and oppressed by their own countrymen who talk peace but practice otherwise."

Pakistan has been anything but forgotten in the calculations of Washington since the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. One year ago the Bush administration released $600 million in aid to Pakistan-what the Pentagon calls a reimbursement for support received in Operation Enduring Freedom. A $1.3 billion poverty-reduction program by the International Monetary Fund followed. With U.S. prodding, the Paris Club of donor countries agreed to restructure another $12.5 billion in debt (Pakistan has about $36 billion in foreign debt).

In exchange, Pakistan dropped its pre-9/11 relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It began to furnish law enforcement and intelligence for the war on terrorism. Christian activists now want the Bush administration to press Mr. Musharraf anew. "Loan forgiveness should be tied to toleration and reformation and human rights," said Mr. Gill.

The Bush administration is adhering to more general persuasion. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Sept.30 meeting of Pakistani business leaders, "It is no secret and doesn't bear a lot of elaboration here that, to this day, some of the worst schools for religious extremism, unfortunately, are in Pakistan." That is why, he said, "the vision President Musharraf has articulated of returning Pakistan to civilian rule is so important."

Absent specified pressure, Mr. Musharraf will not do away with blasphemy laws. Questioned about the laws in a recent meeting with the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (which represents Christians, Sikhs, and Parsis), Mr. Musharraf told director Shahbaz Bhatti that his government "would not compromise on Islamic issues." Later a spokesman was more explicit, telling a reporter, "The Musharraf government says it has no intention either to amend the Constitution for the purpose of doing away with the provisions ... or repeal the blasphemy laws."

With threats against churches and Christian organizations, security is multiplying. Parishioners entering Karachi's St. Michael's Catholic Church last week filed past police stationed behind stacked sandbags.

In a hushed atmosphere, they one-by-one endured body and handbag searches under the watch of four submachine-gun-toting officers in the church courtyard. The procedures are part of a stepped-up security campaign at Christian institutions throughout Pakistan after the Sept. 25 massacre in Karachi.

Not all Christians favor the new level of security. "We are entering the house of God, a place of peace and prayer," lamented David Qadir upon entering St. Michael's. "It's not fair that we have to feel as though we are entering a prison."

And church leaders recognize the measures offer only a short-term solution. "You cannot raise the people who died," said Mr. Gill. "But people who have yet to die and have been targeted can enlist us to make noise and to protect them."

Mr. Gill, like many in Pakistan's small (2 percent of the population) Christian community, had close ties to recent victims. His brother-in-law, Ghulam Masih, was among 16 Christians massacred in Bahawalpur during a Sunday worship service one year ago. Aslam Martin, one of the victims of the Sept. 25 shooting, was a close friend. Mr. Martin wrote a widely distributed article against the blasphemy laws in the monthly magazine Jafa Kash ("Hard Worker"). It likely led to the attack on him and his co-workers at Karachi's Institute for Peace and Justice.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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