From the Broken Chair to Unbroken Souls

Benjamin Blanchard – Directeur général, SOS Christians of the Orient.

From the Broken Chair in Geneva, as part of the United Nations Human Rights Week, I called out to the Unbroken Souls of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, that European citizens stood side by side with them in the fight for justice, for the weakest, the poorest and the persecuted.

A government hand in hand with religious fundamentalism cannot be a true democracy. This is particularly the case in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – Fundamental and extremist Islamists have a close relationship with the government structures, with consequential far reaching impact beyond the political sphere and into society as a whole.

The influence, and even impunity of Pakistani Islamists, is well documented over recent decades, but it is most evident in the persecution and violence shown towards religious minorities, their communities and towards the defenders of human rights.

In 2007, Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan, was en route to a rally in Karachi on 18 October when two explosions occurred as she left Jinnah International Airport returning from her exile. Bhutto was not injured, but the explosions killed 139 people and injured at least 450. On 27th December she was assassinated in the street having just finished an election rally in Rawalpindi. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for her murder.

On 19 July 2010, two Christian brothers, accused of blasphemy, were murdered as they left the court of Faisalabad. Though acquitted, their assassination was the result of fundamentalists calling for violence, launched during Friday prayers in local mosques. Similarly, January 2011 saw, Salma Taseer, the Governor of the province of Punjab assassinated by his bodyguard for opposing the blasphemy law. This law, passed in 1986, stipulates that any offence to the Prophet Mohammed must be punished by death. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister of Religious Minorities was assassinated for defending Asia Bibi. He wished to reform the blasphemy law. On 7 May 2018, Ashan Iqbal, the Minister of the Interior and a fervent advocate of religious minorities, was shot by an Islamist terrorist.

It was on this soil of hatred – which has found a powerful political offshoot – that the case of Asia Bibi, the mother of a Christian family, was sentenced to death for drinking water from a well belonging to Muslims. We all know well her iniquitous condemnation and the surge of hatred and violent demonstrations that followed her acquittal last October after nine years in prison! On social networks, we saw the hashtag #HangAsia! Extremist Imams have issued and spread a fatwa against her and all those who have permitted her acquittal, her lawyer and the judges in her case. The population has been encouraged to take up “street justice” and to assassinate her defenders.

After several weeks of struggle, Asia Bibi was finally released from all criminal charges. We can salute the courage of the Supreme Court and all the defenders of Asia Bibi for this outcome. Within 24 hours of her acquittal, her lawyer fled to Europe, where, in parentheses, “he was able to count on the help of SOS Christians of the Orient.”

Unfortunately, the beautiful figure of Asia Bibi must not be the tree that hides the forest. Minority groups in Pakistan, and especially Christians, live with a Sword of Damocles above their heads. The blasphemy law is still in effect in Pakistan. Recently, a young handicapped man was arrested for throwing a Koran on the ground. Others use this law to settle neighbourhood quarrels; they do not hesitate to invoke Allah for settling their disputes.

The persecution continues for Christians in Pakistan through a state of quasi-slavery. Christian workers in the countryside, who are ‘bonded’ to their Muslim employers cannot escaped bondage to have normal lives. The only hope is the support of the few international NGOs who are finding ways to financially help and buy back the freedom of Christian slaves in order for them to access to normal living conditions.

European and International institutions must speak out and condemn this persecution by extremists and by the State of Pakistan. We must continue the fight against persecution and the defence of liberty – We should never, ever, be discouraged because millions of people in Pakistan are counting on our efforts here and now.

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