Women, Christians Pakistan’s Top Blasphemy Targets

Imran Khan official Twitter profile
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, source Twitter ImrankhanPTI

After Asia Bibi, a new report by the Center for Social Justice shows increasing violence against Christians in Pakistan, especially against women. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores.

If you are a Christian and a woman in Pakistan, you likely run the highest risk of being accused of blasphemy. The result is torture, prolonged trial and most likely, death sentence.

Data gathered by non-government human rights bodies reveal that over 70 percent of those accused of blasphemy are from the minority communities in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Of them, Christians form the majority, and over a half of these are women.

As per findings of the Centre for social Justice (CSJ), although minority communities make up just 5 percent of the population, they are accused in nearly one-third of all blasphemy cases. Out of the total 484 minority community members accused of blasphemy, over 50 per cent have been Christians (264), nearly 40 per cent were Ahmadi (188), the remaining were Hindus (21), Pervaizis (7), Ismailies (1), Sikh (1), and Budhists (2).

Of female victims of extrajudicial killings on blasphemy charges, about 70 percent belong to these minority communities; the majority of the murdered have been Christian women, the CSJ says.

There is no known study in Pakistan to determine why members of the tiny and largely impoverished Christians community, living in rural areas or slums on the cities’ outskirts, forming about 1.7 percent of the 220 million population seem specially targeted.

Enacted during the British colonial era and made most stringent when the country was ruled by military dictator General Ziaul Haq (1977-88), the blasphemy law has earned Pakistan much criticism abroad. Its section 295-C under the Pakistani Penal Code, is punishable by death.

Of those accused of blasphemy, 89 have been subjected to extrajudicial murder by lynch mobs since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, according to a report from the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad. The report collected data from secondary sources, including newspapers and law enforcement reports, to tally the number of victims, perpetrators, charges, and the role of the authorities.

Such incidences was on the rise under civilian rule by different political parties in the last decade, 2011 to 2021. At least 1,287 citizens across the country were accused of committing blasphemy, with the report indicating that the actual number is likely higher as not all blasphemy cases are reported.

Most of the cases, approximately 70 percent, occurred in Punjab. The remaining instances primarily occurred in Sindh, where 177 accusations were reported during the ten year period, and Islamabad, where 55 cases were reported during the same time.

An analysis of the data between 1987 and 2021 shows that blasphemy accusations have gone up by a reported 13,000 percent, data reveals. From

1948 to 1978, only 11 cases of blasphemy were recorded, of them three accused were extra-judicially killed. From 1987 to March 2021, the number of cases reported jumped to 1,428 including 81 instances where the accused were extra-judicially murdered.

In 2020, 200 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, the highest number per year on record. Approximately 75 per cent of the accused were Muslim, of whom 70 percent were Shia, persecuted despite being Muslims.

Among the recent, much publicized cases is one of Asia Bibi, a mother of four, accused of insulting the Prophet by fellow-farmhands. After nine years of trial that ended in her conviction and being on the death row, she found the verdict upturned by Pakistan’s highest court. Released amidst protests, she was whisked out to Canada with her family where she currently lives.

Much before this, however, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who advocated her release and relaxing the blasphemy law was murdered by his own bodyguard in 2011. Convicted and hanged, the bodyguard is local hero with a shrine dedicated to him that is visited by many.

Pakistan’s Ahmedi community of Muslims was declared non-Muslim in 1973. Its persecution has since gone up. The community is ostracised, their homes and mosques attacked and law requires that they do not adopt Muslim names and customs.In the most recent case, a 70-year-old Ahmadi man who was on trial for blasphemy died in Bahawalpur Jail due to alleged mistreatment despite his ill health, as he awaited his bail hearing scheduled for later this year.

Mr. Asghar Ali Kalaar, who was arrested in September 2021, had denied all allegations of blasphemy and claimed it was a frivolous complaint. His request for bail had been postponed until November, despite ample evidence presented by his lawyer of his deteriorating health. He remained incarcerated while his Post Arrest Bail Application was pending before the Supreme Court.

On January 4, he was taken to the hospital after he started vomiting blood. He was handcuffed to the hospital bed during treatment. He spent the final three months of his life in jail. He died at Victoria Hospital, Bahawalpur on January. Kalaar leaves behind a widow and three children. He was the second Ahmadi man to have died while on trial for allegations of blasphemy in the past year.

A report by the Center for Social Justice indicated that approximately 20 percent of people accused of blasphemy are Ahmadi, although the group account for below two percent of the total population.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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