Slain Pakistani Governor had received death threats

As is being widely reported, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assasinated earlier today by his own security guard. The guard apparently heeded the fatwa issued by Islamic extremists who were angry about Taseer’s advocacy for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was recently sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam. Taseer had petitioned the government for her pardon.

Over the past several weeks, I have had contact with Raza Anjum, a city Councillor from the UK, who is in Pakistan trying to win freedom for Asia Bibi. Just hours after the shooting, Anjum (on left below) issued a statement describing a meeting he had with Governor Taseer less than a week ago.  In that meeting, Taseer (on the right in the picture below) said that a fatwa had been issued on him due to his support for Asia Bibi and his opposition to the nation’s blasphemy laws.         

Anjum said that Taseer spoke strongly against religious extremism, saying that  “one needs to be determined and brave in standing up for human rights,” adding that “the extremists aim to install fear in the minds of the people.” According to Anjum, Taseer said he was “prepared to stand up to them to help bring about a progressive and peaceful Pakistan.”

That peaceful Pakistan now seems elusive. 

On New Year’s Eve, thousands went on strike warning of violence if the government amended the blasphemy laws or freed Asia Bibi. On Sunday, the second largest political party in Pakistan pulled out of the coalition goverment citing corruption and economic differences.   

About the tragedy, Anjum said, “The assassination of Salman Taseer is a huge blow to all those who are working for an enlightened and progressive Pakistan. His death has left the country in shock at a time when it faces an imminent political crisis.”

On Taseer’s Twitter page, an associate posted “R.I.P. Lion of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer (31 May 1944-04 Jan 2011)” According to Mr. Anjum, the Pakistan People’s Party said it would observe two weeks of mourning over Taseer’s death. Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani “strongly condemned” the incident, according to CNN.

Here is a Wall Street Journal news report that fills in additional information:

Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province killed by his own security guard

This is a shocking and ominous development in Pakistan. Increasing calls from outside Pakistan for reform of blasphemy laws and the release of Asia Bibi has been met with a rise in violence from far right Islamic forces.

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) — The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard Tuesday, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, apparently because he spoke out against the country’s controversial blasphemy law.

The security guard was arrested, Malik said. The shooting occurred at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market, which is frequented by foreigners.

Taseer went into the market to make some purchases, and he was shot by his guard as he left, said Naeem Iqbal, spokesman for Islamabad police. He was taken to a hospital, where he died, apparently from blood loss.

Malik told Pakistan’s GEO TV that Taseer was assassinated because he spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

A spotlight was put on the law in November when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi of Punjab province, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. A court found the 45-year-old woman guilty of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during a 2009 argument with fellow Muslim field workers.

When I spoke recently with Raza Anjum, UK city official now in Pakistan trying to win the release of Asia Bibi, he told me that Taseer was a fair man who saw the injustice being done in the name of Islam. He spoke out in her favor and worked to get a fair hearing for her case. For that reason, he was under constant threat.

Pakistan is no stranger to such violence but the issues surrounding the blasphemy laws appear to be giving extremists a rallying cry for opposition to moderate elements. The government recently demonstrated weakness by backing away from a bill that would reform the blasphemy laws. It shows no signs of an effective response to the far right.

I will be adding updates and information as I get it. Here is an interview with Taseer about why he took up Asia Bibi’s cause. Note his confidence in the ruling party. This was before the party began to capitulate to extremists.

Pakistani coalition government fragmenting

It is hard to see how this could be anything positive for the minority Christians and Asia Bibi.

Party Leaves Pakistan’s Ruling Coalition…

With the far right Islamic parties crippling the country with strikes and threats, weakness in the central government does not give the President or Prime Minister much room to pardon Asia. The opposition parties are looking for reasons to undermine the ruling party and appearing too pro-US is probably not a big winner at home.

Pakistani official claims govt will not change blasphemy law

I am looking for the actual statement but here is a news report of reassurances to the right wing religious elements that the Pakistani government does not intend to support the private member bill of Sherry Rehman. Her bill would amend the blasphemy law to remove the death penalty and require criminal intent for conviction.

Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah interrupted proceedings in the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament yesterday to make a policy statement that the government has no intention to repeal the blasphemy law enacted during the regime of late military ruler Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Shah also disowned a private bill moved by ruling Pakistan People’s Party lawmaker Sherry Rehman proposing changes in the law to abolish a mandatory death sentence and to guard against its misuse.

The government’s assurance came ahead of a countrywide strike called for December 31 by the Tehrik Tahafooz Namoos-e-Risalat, a grouping of hardline religious groups, including the Jamaat-ud-Dawah.

The groups have also asked the government to explain its stance on the blasphemy law.

“The government considers that its prime responsibility is to protect this law and it will never support any private members’ bill even from the treasury benches in this regard,” said Religious Affairs Minister Shah.

While he may not be speaking for all members of government, this seems like a negative development for Asia Bibi and others who have been jailed for violating this archaic law. As this report notes, even Muslims are at risk:

The blasphemy law has been at the centre of a contentious debate after a lower court in Punjab province sentenced Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, to death last month for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

Asia Bibi has denied the charges and said she was framed following a row with some Muslim women of her village. Rights groups and liberals have complained that the blasphemy law in often misused to settle personal and political scores.

In a recent case, a doctor from a minority Islamic sect was arrested for alleged blasphemy after he threw the visiting card of a sales representative with the first name Muhammad in a dustbin.

In his policy statement, Shah assured Parliament that the government will not allow any wrong to be done to minority communities, who have often complained of false accusations made against them under the blasphemy law.

Pakistani Islamic parties call for a strike on New Years Eve in support of blasphemy laws

Spokesman Abdul Ghafoor Ahmed calls himself a professor, but he is not teaching truth if this news report is citing him accurately. He says the US and UK also criminalize blasphemy. Sadly, many of his listeners probably believe him and assume efforts to change blasphemy laws in his country are reflections of a religious war.

Addressing a crowded press conference at Idara Noor-e-Haq, Professor Ghafoor Ahmed said that Holy Prophet Hazrat Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is the blessing of Allah to whole humanity. He said Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is the most respected person ever born on earth. He regretted anti-Islam elements and their local agents were out to repeal the blasphemy law in Pakistan to achieve their malicious goals against Muslims. Dispelling the misconceptions about the blasphemy bill, he said it was drafted by the clerics hailing from all schools of thought and passed by National Assembly, unanimously. He said that the noble personality of Mohammed (PBUH) is the center of love and respect for the Muslims, adding anti-Islam elements were jealous of this huge respect and love. Citing the laws in the US, UK and other western countries, Professor Ghafoor said that that sentences have also been incorporated in laws of these countries on blasphemy of Hazrat Essa (AS), adding no religion in the world allows blasphemy of the True Messengers of Almighty Allah.

These parties are set to strike on Dec. 31.

KARACHI: Religio-political parties including Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Jamait Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Jamiat Ahle-Hadith, Tanzeem-e-Islami, Tahreek-e-Islami and others would observe a complete shutter down strike across the country on 31st December 2010 against the conspiracies of present rulers to repeal blasphemy law, said Deputy Chief JI Pakistan Professor Abdul Ghafoor Ahmed on Tuesday.

I am becoming convinced that Asia Bibi and her family will require asylum in the US or UK if she is released.

UK Councillor urges Pakistan’s government to protect Christian minorities and to take action against hate speech

Raza Anjum, Muslim city Councillor from Saffron-Walden in the United Kingdom, is scheduled to meet soon with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, in order to campaign for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death by a lower court for violating Pakistan’s laws against blaspheming Muhammad .

Bibi is confined at the Sheikhupuira Jail in Punjab, Pakistan. Her appeal against the lower court’s sentence is pending in the Lahore High Court. Speaking to me from Islamabad, Councillor Anjum said, “I had planned to meet with Asia on Christmas day but my trip couldn’t materialize due to the bombing in the Northwestern part of country.” Anjum was referring to the terrorist bombing at a United Nations food distribution center in the city of Khar, carried out by Taliban militants, killing at least 45 people and injuring over 100.

Despite being unable to meet with Bibi, Anjum said he met with her family, her lawyer and Christian leaders in Punjab.

Anjum arrived in Pakistan two weeks ago in an attempt to win the release of Bibi. He has also called for the protection of all minority groups living in Pakistan via meetings with with majority party politicians, opposition leaders and senior government officials.

Anjum’s efforts come amid several rallies involving Islamic religious leaders and political parties which have threatened violence against minorities if the blasphemy laws are amended. One member of the majority Pakistani People’s Party, Sherry Rehman, recently tabled legislation which would remove the death penalty for blaspheming Islam. However, right wing groups vow violence if any changes are made.

Escalating the tensions, one local Muslim cleric, Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, called for the murder of Asia Bibi and promised a reward of 500,000 rupees ($5,800) to those responsible for her death.

However, according to Anjum such threats are against Pakistani law. “In my recent meeting with Salman Tassir, the Governor of Punjab, I stressed the need for Pakistani authorities to detain those who make hate speech and death threats, such as made by Qureshi,” Anjum said.

Anjum stated that Qureshi has not been arrested and said, “the government should take a firm line with such incidents,” adding, “Article 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code prohibits threats to the life of another.

In recent days Anjum has held meetings with Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, Salman Tassir, Governor of Punjab, Zulfiqar Khosa, Senior Advisor to Chief Minister Punjab. He has also held discussions with the Javed Akhtar, Federal Secretary for Minorities, Dr Abdul Hasan Najmi, Law Secretary Punjab and Shoukat Ali, Home Department Special Secretary. He is also due to meet with the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, a centrist political party in Pakistan.

Anjum told me that he has been co-ordinating his activities with the UK High Commision, saying “I will soon submit a report based on the case of Asia Bibi to the UK embassy and EU delegation in Islamabad.”

Christmas in Pakistan

Pakistan’s President Zardari expressed Christmas greetings to the Christian community there saying

I wish to felicitate the Christians across the globe particularly our Christian brothers and sisters in Pakistan on the auspicious occasion of Christmas.”

The president said, “Christmas is a time for festivity, celebration and rejoicing as well as a reminder to all of us of the message of Jesus Christ (May Allah be pleased with him) of love, forgiveness and brotherhood among the people.”

“We Muslims deeply revere Jesus Christ as one of the great messengers of Allah whose universal message of love for mankind holds great promise of peace and harmony in a world beset with strife, violence and militancy,” he added.

The president said, “The Christians living in Pakistan are a law abiding and loyal community and we are proud of their tremendous contributions to the advancement and development of the country.”

“On this auspicious occasion I also wish to reiterate the commitment of the democratic Pakistan People’s Party to continue to fight along with our Christian brothers and sisters for the rights of all minorities and deprived people in the country for establishing a liberal and pluralistic society in Pakistan,” he added.

There has been violence in Pakistan today but this appears to be related to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

According to this WaPo report, some Christians are wary but many are proceeding with Christmas plans and celebrations. Security concerns appear to be greater in some regions of the country.

Today in Pakistan: Muslims threaten violence if blasphemy laws changed

I spoke to British city councillor Raza Anjum about 10 hours ago who told me that right wing Muslim groups were preparing to rally against any changes in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He told me that the ruling party leaders had proposed changes in the laws which criminalize speaking against Muhammad. However, the opposition party is standing against any changes. Despite their opposition, Anjum was planning to meet with the opposition later in the day.

According to this article, the extremist groups did indeed rally, about 4000 people in three locations and threatened sustained protests and worse if the laws were amended. 

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but Bibi’s case has exposed the deep faultlines in the conservative country.

In the port city of Karachi, more than 2,000 people rallied against Rehman’s proposed draft bill and demanded the government give Bibi a severe punishment for insulting Prophet Mohammad.

Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields.

Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on November 8.

Leaders of JUI and radical Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party warned that the government would “face a strong reaction if Bibi was pardoned.”

”The government should forget about amending the blasphemy law as any attempt in this regard will prove fatal,” a local religious leader Yahya Ludhianvi said.

For more on the Muslim protests, go here and here.

Tense Christmas weekend ahead in Pakistan

While most of us are making last minute Christmas purchases, Christians in Pakistan are hoping for a peaceful rally on Christmas day. As I note in this column on Christian Post today, the situation there is tense.

Without leaving her jail cell in the Punjab province of Pakistan, Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death by a regional court for allegedly blaspheming Muhammad, will be at the center of a tense Christmas weekend. Over a year and half ago, Ms. Bibi was involved in a dispute with Muslim neighbors who accused her of violating laws forbidding negative speech about Muhammad. Even though she denied the charges, she has been jailed since then and her plight has brought international attention to Pakistan’s laws regulating religious speech. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have called for Bibi’s release.

I spoke yesterday morning with Raza Anjum, the British public official who is in Lahore to try to win Bibi’s release. He described a very tense situation and I am concerned that the situation could erupt. With Islamic groups calling for a strike, and the death of Bibi in the days before the Christian groups march on Christmas day, the security situation is very tense.

“There have been a lot of protests going on by extremist groups because they are trying to politicize the issue and distorting the actual facts and the truth behind this case. They’ve been protesting quite regularly, last week we had about three protests,” he explained.

As the Christmas holiday approaches, Mr. Anjum hopes his efforts can secure safety and justice for Asia Bibi. He plans to visit with her in jail on Christmas Day.

CNN and WaPo have more on the situation. The blasphemy laws were recently considered by the UN with the closest vote to discourage them in years, according to Human Rights First.

If you have not done so, go sign the petition in support of Asia Bibi. If you have signed, please send the link to some friends and give Asia and the religious minorities in Pakistan a Christmas present of your time.

Radio Australia summarizes Asia Bibi blasphemy case

This radio broadcast is the best summary of the Asia Bibi case I have found. Click the link to listen to this segment on Windows Media Player.

Radio Australia – Asia Bibi

You hear from Ms. Bibi who describes the false charges of blasphemy, the Governor who wants to pardon her, the legislator who has tabled a bill to amend the blasphemy laws, and the Imam who wants to kill her.

Please listen and go sign the petition directed at Pakistani government leaders.