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‘Fear is palpable’ say Christians in Pakistan

13 January 2011

by a staff reporter

CHRISTIANS and other minority groups in Pakistan say that they are living in fear, after the murder of the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, a prominent liberal politician who was an op­ponent of the punitive blasphemy laws (News, 7 January).

Fr Andrew Nisari, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Lahore said: “This is chaos. This is utter darkness now. The Christian community feels very discouraged.”

Mr Taseer’s bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, confessed in court this week to killing the politician. He fired 27 bullets at Mr Taseer, apparently in retaliation for the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy laws, and his support for the Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who has been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Mrs Bibi is reported to have been devastated by the news of Mr Taseer’s death, as she waits for her case to go to appeal in the High Court in Lahore.

On Mr Qadri’s first appearance in court, he was showered with rose petals by supporters, including his lawyers, who are defending him pro bono. Tens of thousands marched through the streets to back him and to demand that the blasphemy laws be retained. The ruling PPP party has since said that it does not intend to reform them.

Mr Taseer’s daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, said: “The voices calling for reason and tolerance are in danger of being wiped out. The fear is palpable. The militants have issued a warning against further vigils for my father. Yesterday, a rally in support of the blasphemy laws was held in Karachi, at which mullahs incited violence against former information minister Sherry Rehman . . . [who was] proposing blasphemy-law amendments.”

Ms Rehman has been politically isolated since Mr Taseer’s murder, threatened by protesters, and de­clared a non-Muslim by one Islamic leader. She is now in seclusion at her home, under special police guard. “I am amazed at the ferocity of the onslaught,” she said. “I was trying to find a middle ground, but now no one wants to touch the issue. I think this retreat is going to set the country back for years to come.”

The leader of the marginal Tehreek-e-Insaf party, the former cricketer Imran Khan, has also spoken out against the killing. He says it “reflects the total destruction of law and order in the country”. He has been largely discredited, however, in Pakistani politics.

The former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, attacked the government of Pakistan for its “failure to act against those clerics who have been offering rewards for the extrajudicial killing of Aasia Bibi and the governor himself. Such an inability to act has all the hallmarks of a failing, if not a failed, state,” he wrote at the weekend.

Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Christian Pakistani Association (BCPA), said of Mr Taseer’s murder: “The BPCA recognised immediately the sacrifice of a man committed to freedom and equality for all in Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, the first sentence under the blasphemy law since Mr Taseer’s death has been handed down to a Muslim prayer leader and his son, found guilty in Punjab province of tearing down and trampling a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

They were jailed for life — the first time a jail-term has been given under the blasphemy law, which carries a mandatory death sentence.

Pope Benedict XVI this week urged Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws. He said that Mr Taseer’s murder was “tragic”, and that the blasphemy law was being used “as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities”.

He has also previously spoken out in support of Mrs Bibi’s case. His appeal was dismissed, however, by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. And the general secretary of the Jamait-e-Islamic party, Liaquat Baloch, described the Pope’s intervention as “a bid to plunge the entire world into a deadly war”.

The Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Bishop of Lahore, Dr Alexander John Malik, described Mr Taseer as “a voice for the oppressed section of society”. Prayers were said for him in churches across Pakistan at the weekend.

Leader comment
Paul Vallely

Leader comment
Paul Vallely

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