There are no breaking news at the moment

The torture and abuse of two young Christian men, Patras and Sajid Masih, at the hands of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in the Pakistani city of Lahore late last month has sparked outrage among Christians across the country.  The two cousins’ ordeal began after Muslim supremacists accused one of them of violating Pakistan’s draconian “blasphemy” laws. The incident has terrorized the local Christian community, with many fearing an upsurge in harassment and persecution as Islamist groups seek to shore up their base of support in the run up to this year’s national elections.

Earlier this week, relatives of Sajid Masih, Christian groups, Muslim supporters and left activists held a protest outside the Lahore Press Club to demand justice for Patras and Sajid Masih.  Protestors denounced the government for its collusion in the oppression of religious minorities.

“This unjust social environment must end. Christians have endured excessive pain and violence for decades with no respite,” said Mehwish Bhatti, National Director of the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA). “Young girls are kidnapped, raped and forced into Islamic marriage, young men are accused of blasphemy by emotionless accusers, who are later discovered to be settling personal vendettas,” she added.

Wilson Choudhry, Chairman of the BCPR echoed the frustrations of many Christians in his statement at the rally.  “When I read accounts of horrific persecution in Pakistan, I am never surprised,” said Choudhry. “Pakistan’s human rights record registers amongst the lowest performers in the world, largely because the government of Pakistan is apathetic and religiously intolerant despite their rhetoric. Sajid and Patras were born social pariahs for no other reason than their Christian faith which is legal but undermined through law and government policy.”

The plight of Patras and Sajid Masih began on February 19, when a crazed mob of Islamic extremists descended on their largely Christian neighborhood in Lahore to demand that Patras be handed over for “blasphemous” content he’d supposedly posted on Facebook in January. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), an Islamist political party, had previously filed a First Information Report against Patras. Armed with sticks and carrying cans of kerosene oil, the extremists surrounded Christian homes and threatened to burn them down.  Hundreds of Christian families fled area in fear for their lives, and only returned after the local Superintendent of Police personally intervened.

While numerous people have verified that Patras Masih was illiterate and that his cell phone had been missing for some time when the “blasphemous” content was posted, he was forced to surrender in order to protect his family and community.  On February 22, Patras Masih was transferred from police custody into the hands of the FIA in Lahore. The following day, Sajid Masih was summoned to the FIA office for questioning. In an interview with a local newspaper, Sajid described the brutal and sadistic behavior of the FIA officers, which eventually led him to jump from the 4th floor of the building.   The fall nearly killed Sajid, who is now in stable condition after undergoing several surgeries.

“They beat me with fists and kicks and then with a computer electrical cable,” Sajid told The News on Sunday.  When Sajid asked why he was being beaten, the officers replied it was his “fault” for being Patras’ cousin.

“Then they told me to call myself and Patras ‘laanti’ [accursed] which I did,” said Sajid. “Then they ordered me to take Patras’ [trousers] off and perform oral sex on him, but I refused, saying that he was my brother and I couldn’t. Then they started yelling at me. Finding no other way, I jumped from the window – I do not know what happened after that.”

The demands for justice in the case of Patras and Sajid Masih have fallen on deaf ears, as there is still no indication that the government will act against the FIA thugs. Instead, Sajid Masih has been charged with attempted suicide—at the bidding of the same FIA officer investigating the case, no less.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are some of the strictest among Muslim-majority countries.  A conviction for “defiling” the Quran can result in a sentence of life in prison. The death penalty is meted out to those convicted of insulting Muhammad.  While no one has been executed for blasphemy, many people accused of blasphemy have been murdered by Islamist vigilantes over the years. The blasphemy laws are among the tools used by Muslim supremacists to persecute and assert their dominance over Christians and other religious minorities.  The laws have also been used by opportunistic Muslims to settle personal disputes, undermine business rivals, and as an excuse to confiscate land from minorities and the poor. For example, Christians from Patras and Sajid Masih’s neighborhood have told the media about the tactics used by their landlords and local Muslim bigots to force them off their lands, which include frequent harassment and beatings.

In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one his own bodyguards after he intervened on behalf of Aasia Bibi, a Christian farmhand who in 2010 became the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan.  The murder of Taseer, which was soon followed by the assassination of Shabhaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Minorities, provoked an uproar in Pakistan and internationally. Hopes were raised that the murders of two politicians from the ruling party would spur the government into action.  However, after proposing a slight change in the blasphemy laws, members of the then Pakistan People’s Party-led government backed down at the first sign of opposition from the religious right.

Pakistan’s assortment of reactionary clerics and extremist groups enjoy a privileged position in the country. While they may fail to win elections, the influence of the Islamists is bolstered by the Pakistani state’s sponsorship of Islam as the official religion, which is compounded by the ongoing use of communal appeals and obscurantist rhetoric by the country’s shameless and crooked politicians.  The role of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies in patronizing extremist groups is well-documented, but there isn’t a single major political party in the country that hasn’t collaborated with the Islamic right at some point. This includes the ostensibly “liberal” Pakistan People’s Party, which has formed alliances with Islamist parties and sectarian groups in the past, and whose former leader Benazir Bhutto helped prop up the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s.

In recent years, many liberal writers and activists in Pakistan have spoken out against the blasphemy laws and religious discrimination, often at great risk to their lives.  However, the great majority of them do not incorporate the injustices of capitalism or the imperialist domination of the country into their analyses of the problem. Indeed, the religious right has sought to exploit popular anger over mass poverty and inequality in the country to gain support. Their task is made easier by the ostentatious and sometimes decadent lifestyles of the ruling elites.  In addition, the Islamists have also been able to take advantage of the widespread opposition to America’s neo-colonial war in Afghanistan, a war that has had catastrophic consequences for Afghans and Pakistanis alike. Beginning with the dictator Pervez Musharraf, successive governments in Pakistan have continued to provide crucial logistical and intelligence support for the occupation of Afghanistan, now in its 17th year.

Ali Mohsin is an independent writer.  He can be reached at alimohsin1917@gmail.com

 

Comments are closed.