Last week, another two Christians were accused under the notorious Section 295C of the Penal Code, which leads to mandatory death penalty.
by Daniela Bovolenta
On May 8, 2019, the world breathed a sigh of relief when Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic woman who had been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, arrived safely in Canada. She had been sentenced to death by hanging, then acquitted by the Supreme Court, which initially however prevented her from leaving Pakistan pending a revision of the verdict. She also received death threats almost daily.
Human rights experts and scholars of anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan warned that, while in several countries politicians had mobilized for Asia Bibi, and rightly so, they might have overlooked hundreds of less publicized cases. From 1987, when the blasphemy law was made stricter, more than 1,500 people faced a blasphemy accusation in Pakistan. Many spent long years in jail, and at least 75 were lynched by mobs.
While other statutes specifically target the Ahmadi minority, the most dreaded provision is Section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code, which states that those found guilty of “derogatory remarks, either spoken or written, either direct or indirect” against Prophet Muhammad or other prophets of Islam should be subject to mandatory death penalty.
On February 15, International Christian Concern reported that on February 13, Haroon Ayub Masih and Salamat Mansha Masih, two Christian evangelists, were accused of blasphemy under Section 295C. They were preaching in Model Town Park in Lahore. Among those who stopped to listen was one Haroon Ahmad, a Muslim, to whom the evangelists gave a Christian book entitled “Water of Life.”
Ahmad complained that the two Christians and the book implied that Christianity is the true religion, which means that Islam is a false religion, and that the Bible is superior to the Quran. According to Ahmad, the two Christians also told him that Jesus Christ, who did not marry, was superior to Muhammad, who married.
True or false, this was enough for Ahmad to file a FIR (First Information Report), which led to the two Masih being charged under Sections 295A (offending the religion, which carries a jail penalty up to two years), 295B (offending the Quran: imprisonment for life), and 295C (offending the Prophet: mandatory death penalty).
It is not an isolated case. 24 Christians are currently in jail in Pakistan for blasphemy. One of them, Asif Pervaiz, is on death row, although his lawyer has appealed the decision. He was sentenced to death in September 2020 under Section 295C for having allegedly written derogatory remarks about Muhammad in a text message sent to his supervisor at a garment factory. Pervaiz said his supervisor was trying to convert him forcibly to Islam.
Pervaiz has gathered a large support, with many in Pakistan and abroad mobilizing to prevent his execution. But it is not only about Asia Bibi, Asif Pervaiz, or the two Masih. As long as the anti-blasphemy provisions will remain part of Pakistani law, religious minorities will never be safe, and people will continue to spend long years in jail or die based on false allegations or malicious interpretations of their remarks.