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.

Young conservatives and DADT – So What?

If RenewAmerica has a Christmas party, I want to attend just to watch Jamie Freeze take on the good ol’ boys. Jamie is a young conservative woman and a student at Regent University law school who thinks the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a good thing. Elsewhere, on the 17th, the ACLJ’s Jordan Sekulow essentially yawned at the repeal. I will discuss his WaPo column after I briefly excerpt Freeze’s article titled, “General George S. Patent Leather: Conservatives and DADT,” Freeze counters fellow Renew America  columnist Bryan Fischer’s effort to link the lunar eclipse with the repeal of DADT.

Freeze is a traditional evangelical regarding sexuality but she does not believe government should require citizens to adopt her views. She says:

…as one Christian associate said, “For us to feel appointed to execute some sort of cosmic justice on the Lord’s behalf is the height of hubris.”

Our government governs Christians and non-Christians. America was founded on Christian principles by Christians and non-Christians. It was not an exclusively Christian nation or else the 1st Amendment would have been nullified from the start. Our founders quickly realized that mandating church attendance and tithing were futile attempts in changing the hearts of men. That is why the Baptists were the forerunners of separation of church and state in colonial America — they did not want a state church because God did not need the state to accomplish His plan. The state interfered with God’s work. As a Baptist, I am proud of the tradition that Isaac Backus and John Leland gave America, and I seek to preserve it.

I would add Roger Williams to the list as well. Williams and then later the early Baptists Backus and Leland stood for a state that protected the rights and conscience of all. I really like this quote attributed to Leland by Wikipedia:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” – A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

Freeze then addresses several arguments social conservatives have raised against DADT, in one case citing a soldier friend who believes sexual orientation is irrelevant to service. She adds that we need all hands on deck while fighting two wars and channels Barry Goldwater’s observation that people who shoot straight need not be straight.

In what has passed for conservatism in recent years, Freeze rightly notes that the divide over social issues is growing.

As a conservative, I have already received much criticism for the views expressed in this article, and I anticipate more. One man, a prominent local Republican clearly offended by my views, told me I held no claim to the ideology of conservatism. However, I will share with you what I told him: “If by conservative, you mean valuing life, liberty, and property above all other rights, then yes, I am conservative. I am a Lockean to the core. However, if, by conservative, you mean I want the government to mandate our lives to the smallest details all for the sake of public morality, then no, I am not a conservative.”

I agree with Freeze here but I do not dismiss the concerns of social conservatives lightly, especially those who are not working for advocacy groups. Many people I know are afraid that the government is going to make them believe things they can’t believe. They are afraid that the kind of philosophy espoused by Williams and Leland will require them to adhere to views they cannot accept. Not so. When laws are judged fairly, protecting the freedom of others does not remove mine. In a society where equal protection is for everyone, it is to my advantage to stick up for the rights of all. By doing this, I am sticking up for my rights to pursue my conscience as well. Where rights seem to be in conflict, we can try to work it out as citizens or involve the judiciary.

Another young conservative who has probably raised some eyebrows is Jordan Sekulow with the conservative ACLJ. Started by Pat Robertson, ACLJ does not have any pro-gay cred, and yet Mr. Sekulow writes, No DADT, No Problem:

The outdated, unworkable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law will likely be repealed in the next few days. As a Christian conservative broadcaster, attorney, and activist who recently discussed DADT and my opinion about it on-air, I can say that for the most part, social conservatives are not enraged about the end of DADT. In fact, the grassroots has not been engaged on this issue for a long time.

I feel pretty sure that the Family Research Council or the American Family Association will not agree with this assessment since they have been on a full court press to stop the repeal. Sekulow locates his attitude at least partially in his youth, saying

We live in a new time. As a young member of the “religious right,” if a gay friend or family member came to me and said they wanted to join the military, I would gladly be the first to congratulate and thank them. I do not believe they should be barred from serving because of their sexual orientation.

For all those who believe social conservatism is a monolithic mass, one needs to contrast Sekulow’s statement with Bryan Fischer’s “homosexuals in the military gave us six million dead Jews” rant.

I do not want to make too much out of two young conservatives and their views on DADT, but I am inclined to think they are part of what other observers see as a moderating trend among youth toward homosexuality. These young people do not view homosexual behavior as an option within their religious views, but they also seem to be rejecting the strident, stereotyping rhetoric and policies of their elders.

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.

What Asia Bibi is up against in Pakistan

Asia Bibi, the Christian woman in Pakistan convicted of blasphemy against Muhammad and sentenced to death, has an appeal hearing this week. However, don’t expect the legal profession as an institution to help her or push for human rights. This article in Pakistan’s The Nation, quotes the President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, who urges no change in the blasphemy laws and no help for Asia Bibi.

The Bar committee, also attended by the vice president of the provinces, the secretary and the other office-holders, unanimously carried a resolution to refrain the government from amending the Blasphemy Law and also granting pardon to Asia Bibi, a condemned prisoner on the same charges. The Bar expressed serious concern over Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s move to get presidential pardon for Asia when her appeal was pending hearing before the court of law.

They said the government functionaries were seeking amendment or a complete repeal of the said law, which it said, was a shameful effort being made under a foreign agenda, which is strongly condemnable.

“In no circumstance, any amendment encouraging or creating any effort to defile the sacred name and personality of Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) can be brought upon the statute book.”

The Committee has unanimously warned the government and the members of the Parliament to refrain from implementing any such proposal. “The SCBA and the legal fraternity would never accept any such pardon and amendment and it would be resisted by every possible efforts”, it added.

Gov. Salman Taseer has taken a great risk to call for pardon for Asia. And apparently any lawyer that will defend her will be acting in contradiction to this resolution of Pakistan’s association of lawyers. The slogan on the front page of the website is “The help you need when you need it most.” However, this is a hollow sentiment when it only applies to the Muslim in-group.

UPDATE: A report from the Pakistan Daily Times clarifies the stance of the Bar Association.

SCBA clarifies news report

LAHORE: This is to deny that the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), in its second executive committee meeting held on December 18, unanimously passed any resolution regarding either Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code itself or any case related to it.

The facts are that a resolution to that effect was presented by a member of the executive committee, but only a portion of it was passed unanimously, which paid reverence and commitment to honour and respect the name of the holy Prophet (PBUH), while the rest of the resolution regarding 295C, the case of Aasia Bibi and its consequences was deferred with consensus.

The Supreme Court Bar Association regrets the attempt made by one of its executive members to mislead the press and the public. The SCBA is a responsible body and its resolutions will be fully debated before being passed, especially unanimously.

British politician will spend Christmas in Pakistan with Asia Bibi

I admire Raza Anjum for putting himself on the line on behalf of Pakistan Christian, Asia Bibi. Bibi, convicted in Pakistan of violating the nation’s blasphemy law, has become the subject of an international effort to see her pardoned and freed from prison. According to Politics.co.uk, Anjum

…arrived in Pakistan at the end of last week and has since been organising meetings with senior officials including the prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani.

Mr Anjum, who represents the small market town of Saffron Waldon in Essex, expressed optimism that his efforts would “make a real difference” in the case of Asia Bibi – who is seeking a pardon from her death sentence.

Ms Bibi claims the charges of blasphemy brought against her were the result of a personal dispute with her neighbours.

Mr Anjum told politics.co.uk: “I feel that my efforts are progressing positively. There seems to be a widespread recognition amongst Pakistani politicians that this controversial case is a result of a personal dispute and that the blasphemy laws have been wrongly applied.

“In my discussion with various politicians I have emphasised the unjust nature of this case and I have called for the immediate release and pardon of Asia Bibi.”

Sign a petition here to speak up for Asia Bibi.

Sign the petition to free Asia Bibi

Please sign this petition targeting the Ambassador to the United States from Pakistan, along with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister.

Writing in 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport said, “The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes prejudice and it unmakes prejudice.” In no case is Allport’s observation better illustrated than in the tragic situation of Asia Noreen Bibi. On Monday, NPR’s Julie McCarthy chronicled the story of Bibi, a 45 year-old, Christian mother of five who is now in a Pakistani jail with a death sentence over her head. Her crime? She was convicted last month of blaspheming the prophet Muhammad, which under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, allowed the court to sentence her to death. Although no person has yet been executed under these laws, local Muslim extremists, including those representing the Taliban, have threatened violence if she is not executed.

Bibi has been in prison for over a year, awaiting the resolution of her fate, after being arrested following a verbal altercation with Muslim co-workers. According to reports, the Muslim women refused to accept water from her, calling her “unclean” due to her faith. She reportedly defended herself and then later was detained by the women, who tried to convert her. When this failed, Bibi was arrested and held in isolation until recently when the sentence of death was handed down.

Last week, Imam Maulana Yousuf Qureshi, who once gained international notoriety by calling for the murder of Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of Muhammad, issued a $5800 reward for the murder of Bibi. Qureshi said that Muslim extremists will kill Bibi if she is freed.

Asia Bibi’s case requires an international outcry from people of all religious views. The bullying and murder of minority religious adherents in Pakistan must stop. Call upon the Pakistani government to free Asia Bibi and to guarantee safety for her and her family.