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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Wilson and Alex Speak at House of Lords debate

Wilson Chowdhry, Baroness Finlay of Llanduff and alex Chowdhry before the debate began.

A very eventful debate occurred between minorities across the globe as leaders from minority communities of Argentina, Pakistan, Baluchistan, Iraq and Aremina and kurdistan sat around a table to forge a united approach for tackling the issue of international persecution. The event was organised by the "Forum for Unrepresented Nations and Minorities" as part of a Annual Hrant Dink Commemoration a humanitarian Journalist who died in Istanbul after speaking out against the Armenian Genocide. Read more (Here). The meetings are sponsored by Baroness Cox and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff.

A follow-up meeting is to be organised as the interesting debate went on for longer than expected. Baronees Cox has also asked for the BPCA to be more involved with her own work. Below we include Wilson Chowdhry's presentation:

My Lords ladies and gentlemen, I am grateful to the noble Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, for initiating this very necessary debate on human rights.

My Lords, In this presentation we provide evidence of the significant persecution and inequalities that Christians and other minorities face in Pakistan, as a consequence of their faith.

The British Pakistani Christian Association has, been working tirelessly for the last 2 years, trying to improve the situation for those Christians living in Pakistan. To describe every incident of persecution would require completion of a dossier. However for the purposes of this exercise, we will in brief, describe some of the case studies that are within our knowledge.

Gojra:

In a small town called Gojra (near Faisalabad) on August 1st 2009 a Christian community was attacked for a purported desecration of the Quran at a wedding – it was said that torn shreds of the Quran were used for confetti. Eight people were burnt alive, as 60 homes and a church were razed to the ground.

The attack was instigated by a local imam who preached hatred against the local Christians after a reported Quaran desecration was received via a local Muslim.

The aftermath was filmed by BBC South Asia showing the empty shells of burning homes.

Police confirmed after investigation that the allegations were false and several arrests were made. However no-one was brought to justice and little compensation was given to this beleaguered community.

Shazia Bashir:

On the 19th January 2010 Shazia Bashir a domestic servant of only 12 years, was presented to Jinnah Hospital, Lahore by her employers - she was pronounced dead on arrival. An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from a mix of; blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. It is alleged that the landlord a Muhammed Naeem - former Lahore Bar Association President, offered 30,000 rupees to the family for their silence and informed them that she had an accident falling from the stairs.

Prior to her death Shazia’s parents had been given little access to their daughter and the parents have said on record, the one time they were allowed to see her during her employment she complained that the landlord and his were committing rape. Shazia is also said to have complained that the mother and sisters regularly beat her, that she was often unfed and that she was working excessive hours.

When the parents confronted Mr Naeem, they were thrown out of Mr Naeem’s house under threat of violent repercussions. Their daughter was dragged away by her hair.

When trying to lodge a complaint to local Police they were informed that a case could not be registered against anyone from the legal fraternity. 3 months later they received the offer for their silence.

A court hearing was scheduled in Lahore Session Courts for the 26th January 2010 and was stormed by Muslim lawyers. 300 rampaging lawyers scuffled with journalists and policemen as they embraced Mohammed Naeem, despite a significant Police presence? The judge was unable to proceed with the legal requirements of the case and had to adjourn the hearing.

On 13th February 2010 Muhammed Naeem was granted bail after purportedly fabricated evidence indicated that Shazia Bashir had died of “old wounds”. Muhammed Naeem has now absconded from a scheduled High Court hearing and is a fugitive.

Waris Pura siege:

On the 2nd July 2010 Sajid and Rashid Masih were arrested in Waris Pura (near Faisalabad), for a purported blasphemy. It was alleged that prior to the arrest a hand written leaflet containing offensive writings about Islam and about the Prophet Mohammed, was circulated in the area. The leaflet brought angry reaction among Muslims. The two brothers were accused of writing the leaflet (of which only 1 copy was ever produced). The Court ruled differently and acquitted them from the charge on 19th July 2010. The two brothers were exiting the court in celebration of the justice they had received, when they were shot down by unknown, masked gunmen.

The shooting occurred directly in front of the law courts from which they had only hours earlier, been found not guilty of blasphemy. Police protection was large and ample yet this incident occurred without any arrest made. To date no-one has been brought to justice.

As a consequence of the attack a peaceful protest for justice was held by Christians in Waris Pura. In retaliation the Muslim majority subjected Christians to a night long siege, unable to sleep or relax as gunshot rang around them. Many Christians were chased from their houses and businesses, and beaten in the streets. Prompt Police action prevented this incident becoming a more severe atrocity, however, on return to their homes and places of work, the victims discovered that they had been looted and subjected to vandalism.

Asia Bibi:

The case of Asia Bibi calls for consideration; Mrs. Bibi is a 45-year-old mother of five from Ittanwali (near Lahore) in Punjab province and has become the first Christian woman to be convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. She has four daughters, one of whom is disabled, and a son.

Mrs. Bibi has spent the last year-and-a-half in gaol following an argument on 19th June 2009 with other women who were working with her in a field near Lahore. The Muslim women had refused to drink water that Mrs. Bibi had fetched because she was a Christian and they considered her and referred to her as “filth”. The refusal led to a discussion about religion, during which she is said to have compared the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. It is also said that the women had put her under pressure to renounce her Christian faith and embrace Islam.

No derogatory remarks were made regarding the Prophet Muhammad, apart from her observation that Muhammad was not crucified for their sins like Jesus Christ. Mrs. Bibi then asked what Muhammad had done for them. Such discussions amongst the adherents of different religions are an essential part of freedom of expression, as well as freedom of religion.

The women became very angry and began to beat Mrs. Bibi. She was locked in a room and her children were attacked by an angry mob. Some Christians informed the local police and had her put into protective custody. Later that evening, a blasphemy case under section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code was registered against her after pressure was placed on the police by local Muslim leaders.

Mrs. Bibi was tried and sentenced to death by hanging by the Sessions Court in Sheikupura on 7th November 2010. The court also fined her £728, which is equivalent to two-and-a half years’ salary for an unskilled worker. A Pakistani Government minister said last week that an initial inquiry into the case found that Mrs. Bibi had not committed blasphemy, but was falsely accused after a quarrel. Following international pressure, Mrs. Bibi’s execution was stayed. She appealed her sentence and requested a pardon, but the Lahore High Court barred President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning Mrs. Bibi on Monday, 29th November in response to a petition filed by a Pakistani citizen. On Monday, 6th December 2010 the Lahore High Court barred the Federal Government of Pakistan from making any amendments to the blasphemy laws until the Court gives its verdict on the petition in this case.

The British Pakistani Christian Association considers her to be a prisoner of conscience. They created an online petition that was delivered to the Prime Minister and the Pakistani Embassy on Thursday, 18th November. The petition attracted 2,662 signatures in just 8 days. There has been an international outcry about the case and the Pope has asked for clemency.

Until the Pakistan People’s Party implements its manifesto pledge and honour it’s commitment to these freedoms, evidenced in its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on 23rd June 2010), by abolishing the blasphemy law and the intolerable abuses that are made of it - the occurrence of persecution of minority communities will continue to increase in intensity and frequency.

Above we have listed 4 of the worst cases of Christian persecution, however on March 22nd 2010 a Rashid Masih was axed to death by six Muslims in Miah Channu (Punjab), after refusing to recant the Christian faith and adopt Islam. It is reported that the men who attacked him were jealous of the success of his potato fields. The perpetrators of the crime have escaped justice by absconding and have still not been located.

A Trainee Nurse Magdalene Ashraf at 23 years of age, was purportedly raped and thrown from a hospital window at Ali Jinnah Hospital, Karachi. She was said to have been locked in Doctor Abdul Jabbar Memon’s offices and subjected to 2 days of debauchery. Nurse Magdalene recently refused to identify Dr Memon in a court hearing – after significant threats, that led to his release on Bail on Friday 10th December 2010.

Much of the inequality and prejudices in Pakistan are ingrained and a consequence of the often extremist theocratic society that has developed in the region. In fact when Pakistan was afforded independence it was as a result of a direct campaign by Mohammed Ali Jinnah to create a Muslim nation state. One of the key problems when tackling inequality of Pakistan is the presence of the legal bias created by the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan. The law protects only the prophet Mohammed and the Quran. This renders people of all other faiths second class citizens.

The blasphemy law was originally introduced during British rule, but has been misused a great deal since the fundamentalist dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, when it took its present form under pressure from extremists. There is now a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Qur’an and a mandatory death sentence for “blaspheming” Muhammad. Unlike the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (UK), which prohibits people from stirring up hatred against religious groups or individuals on religious grounds, the Pakistani blasphemy law protects the Islamic scriptures and the person of Muhammad from criticism or insult. Pakistan’s population of 170 million are subject to the blasphemy law, with religious minority groups making up about 4% of that number.

Members of minority groups such as Christians and Ahmadis are often convicted of the offence of “blasphemy” on scant evidence, including mere hearsay to effect personal revenge or to settle unrelated disputes, such as property ownership. Although convictions for blasphemy are common, the death sentence has never been carried out. Nonetheless, vigilantes have often taken matters into their own hands and killed those who were accused of the offence.

The Pakistani Constitution states that:

“no person can be deprived of life or liberty, save in accordance with law” it goes on to state:
“that on arrest or detention in custody, person is to be told grounds for such action & has the right to consult and be defended by legal practitioner of his/her choice.” And adds:
“arrested person is to be produced before the Magistrate within 24 hours of arrest; any detention beyond this period without the Magistrate’s authority is illegal.”

Time after time, evidence surfaces of illegal imprisonments on all people and especially in cases placed upon Christians. Sentences are commonly above the stipulated 24 hrs quoted above and access to legal representation is frequently denied.

Moreover legal representatives have often been prevented access to their clients at court hearings due to threats and physical attack. Evident recently in the case of Shazia Bashir listed above in our case studies.

In Shazia’s case the victims family, friends and Christian Lawyers assigned to prosecute on Miss Bashir’s behalf, were prevented access to the courts by unruly mobs. This prevented effective prosecution and reciprocally justice.

Robert Danish was arrested on 11th September 2009 after it was said that he pushed a local Muslim girl returning from Quranic studies. The momentum from the shove was purported to have resulted in her Quran falling to the ground near a drain, where it was soaked and irreparably damaged. Mr Danish was later found dead in prison on the 15th September 2009 after a false blasphemy charge was placed on him on 11th September 2009.

His arrest occurred after he gave himself up to rescue his father who had been illegally arrested in his place after a violent attack in his home town of Sumbrial near Sialkot. People were beaten by sticks and forced from their homes which were looted. A postmortem stated he had committed suicide yet his body was covered in scars and welts. His family protested that he had been killed in prison to no avail.

Article 11 states:

“slavery, all forms of forced labour and trafficking of human beings are prohibited” and that:
“no child under 14 can work in a factory or a mine or any other hazardous employment.”

In the case of Shazia Bashir we hear that her parents tried to obtain her freedom and were prevented from taking their daughter from the house of the man that raped her and forced her to work in his home.

Basic freedoms are listed in articles 15 -19 of the constitution. Those most pertinent for the purposes of this discussion include;

“all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law”.

I refer you to the initial contact made with the Police in the case of Shazia Bashir. Police involvement was a consequence of a visit from the Minister of Minorities and his subsequent call for action. The Minority Minister Shabhaz Bhatti’s visit was triggered on behest of the President of Pakistan- only after details of the case surfaced on international social networking sites, creating wider media attention.

Amnesty International has made several statements with regards to the persecution of Pakistani Christians. Incidents of persecution have increased on Christian minorities significantly since the war on terror. Many Muslims view the war on terror as a jihad or holy war and believe that Christians are the perpetrators. Innocent victims in Pakistan are an easy target and an opportunity for many to vent their frustrations.

In addition to persecution the BPCA advises that a number of wider inequalities exist in Pakistan. A number of surveys have highlighted that only 7% of people form minority groups attain literacy. As a consequence of this and significant cultural prejudice 80% of Christians work as domestic labour or as sanitary workers. Low paid employment of this type and limited access to good careers for those that are educated, have led to Christian Communities living in poorer regions and subject to the whims of feudal landlords and persecution from the wealthy and powerful. No more evident then in the case of Shazia Bashir and Nurse Magdalene.

We have tried to describe the situation in Pakistan as best we can. There are numerous other incidents of persecution we could have added - all gathered within a short 2 year period. The fact remains that despite the lack of Western knowledge of the situation in Pakistan, persecution has significantly increased for Pakistani Christians and other minority faiths. Only in January the world was shocked when it was revealed that 2 Sikhs had been beheaded by the Taliban in the North West Frontier Provinces.

Aasia Bibi’s case featured on BBC’s International News, has revealed to a much wider audience the concerns that the Christian minorities in particular, have been subjected to in Pakistan. Yet Pakistani Christians and other minorities escaping persecution to the UK are still deported due to a purported lack of evidence.

A way forward.

Reading the above it might seem that peace in Pakistan is an impossibility. Such notions themselves are incorrect when you study how our society her in the UK evolved over a long period of time. It will need strong Governments, leaders and communities to make the change but in time all is feasible.

Some suggestions the BPCA have alreday suggested to various parties include:

A national committment to remove the disparity in education for students from minority groups. Research by CAFOD indicates that only 7% people of minority descent attain an adequate level of literacy. The first priority for the Government should be to introduce measures to level the balance. Issues pertaining to such improvement include:

• A need for better subsidised education for the extremely poor.
• Return of Christian Schools sequestered during the term of Nawaz Shariff (Hitherto they provided significant discount - supported via external funding)
• Removal of Islamic Studies in favour of broad based religious studies; this not only promotes harmony by teaching that which links faiths and removing myth, but also prevents intentional educational neglect from parents fearing proselytisation.
• Sponsoring development for higher level Christian/other faith educational courses. Currently only Islamic under and post-graduate courses exist.

With respect to learning more must also be done to create a higher level of literacy throughout the country. Only 40% of the Muslim majority have attained an adequate level of literacy if Government statistics are to be believed. The BPCA believes that this figure has probably been exaggerated. Nevertheless, it still highlights the need for a concerted approach to tackle overall literacy in the country. It is a commonly held belief amongst people of all faiths that the lack of education in Pakistan, has made the general population na├»ve to the precepts of their faith. This fuels a chronic lack of discernment between good and bad or truth and lies and creates a malleability to the radical preaching’s of extremist religious leaders. Compulsory community cohesion courses and inclusive religious education with better educational facilities and opportunity would fuel a more erudite, conscientious and harmonious society.

The BPCA have been calling for reform of the blasphemy law for the preceding two years. As advocates for change we have endorsed the following points as a framework for improved procedure in Pakistan:

Return of the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan to the pre-islamicised version introduced by the British in 1927, after a Lahore High Court judgment, the British Government introduced section 295-A (to the then Indian Penal Code, 1860) which provided for punishment for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” It was thought that it would take care of acts, among other things, of insult to the person of the Holy Prophet that should be deemed to be covered under the umbrella of acts intended to outrage religious feelings. This act was universally applicable to all faiths providing protection to all and was subject to little abuse. In fact until 1986 when the Blasphemy law was islamicised only 10 cases were tried in court. I should emphasise here that our overall aim is to see the abolition of the act in its entirety due to its breach of international freedom and equality conventions.

We would also like to see appropriate sentencing under section 153a of the Pakistan Penal Code. Which provides punishment for acts (words, either spoken or written or by visible representations, or otherwise) that promoted feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes.

We are also calling for more scrutiny for Ulema Council’s (Muslim Scholarly boards) preventing the radical indoctrination of mass communities and public calls for persecution of minorities.

The BPCA seek the removal of faith labelling within passports, and Shanakti Cards (ID Cards) as we maintain that this allows for pre-screening for minority groups, preventing access to employment and educational opportunity. Moreover that act itself creates a sense of second class citizenship and flies in the face of international protocol.

To end my speech I will talk a little of the need of ideas to promote positive cultural reform. In recent times we have noticed an increased sense of animosity between Christians and Muslims in the UK and Pakistan. Community bridging projects are required to create a stronger sense of unity. A grassroots application is required that goes beyond the usual political and community meetings. Art has had an intrinsic relationship to cultural reform globally. A monument to the deceased Rashid Masih a caretaker who sacrificed his life grappling with a suicide bomber, to save the 2000 girls in the Islamabad School in which he worked as a caretaker – would provide food for thought and symbolise that people are valuable and can live in harmony for the betterment of each other. A monument to recently deceased Human Rights activist Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer would serve great purpose.

Community cohesion events or memorial dates would add to a wider philosophy of integration and peace.

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