Pakistan's Islamist party, Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami (JUI), has petitioned to have the Bible banned from Pakistan because it violates the nation's notorious blasphemy laws. The move by the JUI is just the latest episode in the ongoing and increasingly deadly persecution of Christians in that Islamic nation.
According to JUI leader Maulana Abdul Rauf Farooqi, the Bible contains passages that show biblical figures whom Muslims regard as prophets (such as Abraham and Solomon) to be engaging in "a variety of moral crimes." As such, the JUI has called on Pakistan's supreme court to have the entire Book banned from the country if the offending passages are not removed.
While the JUI acknowledged its petition was partially in response to the Koran burning organized by Florida pastor Terry Jones in March 2011, it also dismissed the notion that banning the Christian Bible would cause additional trouble between Muslims and Christians.
Unfortunately, that is not what Pakistan's tiny Christian community believes. Pakistani Christians have found themselves under continuous assault from both government authorities and Islamist mobs. That may explain why Pakistan's Christian leaders urged restraint in wake of the Bible suit, fearful of further antagonizing Pakistan's more fervent Muslims.
For his part, Farooqi was confident that Pakistan's highest court would side with the JUI petition. However, his certainty may have less to do with the merits of his case than with the fact that Pakistan's blasphemy laws have proven to be a reliable legal cudgel with which to bankrupt, beat, jail and kill Christians.
As a spokesman for a Catholic advocacy group says the pervasive use of the blasphemy laws have ratcheted up Christian fears to unprecedented levels, leading them to "have no faith in the police or justice system."
Evidence for their fears was on full display recently when a Pakistani anti-terrorism court acquitted 70 Muslims accused of attacking and setting fire to over 50 houses and two churches in a Christian colony in July 2009. In that assault, eight people — including a seven-year old child — were burned alive and 20 others wounded.
Perhaps more disturbingly, many Pakistani Islamists believe killing a blasphemous person earns a heavenly reward. As a result, extra-judicial killings are common. Since 2009, at least 30 Christians accused under Pakistan's blasphemy laws have been killed by mobs of Islamist vigilantes.
According to a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, "The problem is that all these extrajudicial killings remain unpunished. For religious minorities it is a crucial issue, since it affects the fundamental rights of every person."
Unfortunately for Pakistani Christians, Pakistan's blasphemy laws contain no provisions to punish a false accuser or false witness. Consequently, the laws have often been used to settle personal scores rather than to defend against perceived sleights to Islamic piety.
For instance, a Christian mother of five children has been in prison in solitary confinement since June 2009, after a verbal disagreement with some women in her village led to her being accused of having blasphemed against Mohammad.
In November 2010, a Christian farm worker was accused of uttering blasphemous words against Mohammad during an argument with fellow workers and sentenced to death.
In May 2011, a group of Muslims — at the behest of a former member of parliament — attacked the houses of two Christians in order to force the owners to transfer the land ownership over to the politician.
Sadly, Christian children have not been spared the effects of this relentless persecution. For example, a young Pakistani woman claimed Christian children required to take Islamic studies in school are in danger simply "if they write anything or misspell anything to do with the prophet Mohammad."
Some parents take the added precaution of not telling their children about Jesus because they are terrified they will fall prey to accusations under the blasphemy statutes. As such, an entire Christian generation of young children is growing up not knowing their faith for fear that it will lead to potentially disastrous consequences.
Some Christians find the easiest route out of this sewer of oppression is to simply convert to Islam. According to some estimates, from between 2005 and 2010 an average of 400 Christians took this course.
Yet, conversion isn't always a voluntarily affair. Many Christians have been killed — some even burned alive — for failing to convert. Only last month, two Christian girls from Punjab were forced to marry and convert to Islam after they were kidnapped by a wealthy businessman. As a spokesman for a Pakistani Christian legal aid organization says, "Kidnapping Christian girls, conversion and forced marriages have become common practice."
Ironically, the increased rise in Islamic harassment comes at the same time that Pakistan's Jinnah Institute issued a report documenting and denouncing the persecution of Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities in Pakistan. Yet, that news also led one priest to note that the Institute's Muslim chair had now risked her life because she "exposed herself on such delicate issues."
In fact, most political attempts to lessen Christian torment — be it by Christians or Muslims — have proven quite fatal. Since January 2011, both the governor of Punjab province and Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities were assassinated after each had campaigned against blasphemy legislation.
The political climate for Christians has become so toxic that Punjab's Minorities Affairs Minister was prevented from presenting this year's provincial budget because Muslim representatives chafed at a Christian being given such a prominent responsibility.
This action brought a sharp response from the leader of the Pakistan People's Party Minorities Wing, which said, "Every citizen of this country, regardless of any religious belief, has an equal claim to it…Condoning such bigotry and intolerance will only confirm the worst impressions about Pakistanis." Some Pakistani Muslims are working overtime to lower Pakistan's already dim national image.
In May 2011 alone, Christians have witnessed: a hospital ER chief refuse to treat a wounded Christian policeman; a 29-year-old Christian mother of three abducted by a Muslim co-worker drugged and gang-raped; and Muslim landowners destroying and desecrating a Christian graveyard. In all three instances, police refused to open an inquiry.
Yet, despite all the suffering, the experience has served in many instances to resolve and deepen Christian faith. According to one Catholic priest, while fear and panic may create a sense of unease and fear in their minds, "The faithful participate in large numbers at mass because they find comfort in the word of God."
That truth was perhaps best displayed when armed Muslims recently broke up a Presbyterian Church service in Punjab by desecrating the Cross, destroying copies of the Bible and beating several elderly Christians with bamboo sticks. The Church, however, refused to pursue criminal charges. A statement released by its leaders read in part, "Forgiveness is more powerful than revenge."
If only the sentiment were mutual.