Mission Agency to Help Sponsor Hearings on Religious Liberty in Pakistan
By Elliott Wright
New York, NY, August 30, 2012—The arrest of an 11-year-old Pakistani Christian girl on charges of blaspheming Islam is adding incentive to an international, ecumenical effort to protect religious minorities in Pakistan.
The late August arrest of Rimsha Masih in Islamabad dramatizes the rationale for hearing on the “Misuse of the Blasphemy Law and the Plight of Religious Minorities in Pakistan,” organized by the World Council of Churches and set for September 17-18 in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Methodist Church, through its General Board of Global Ministries, is helping to fund the hearings.
Rimsha Masih, who reportedly has Down’s syndrome, was arrested and is being held on charges of violating a law that makes it a capital offense to defame Islam. She allegedly was found with ashes of burned pages of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. The blasphemy law, enacted in its present form in 1986, is periodically used to suppress or frighten religious minorities in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim. Reports also indicate that it creates major challenges for “moderate” Muslims, such as those who favor religious freedom for all.
On September 2, a Muslim cleric, Khalid Chishti, was arrested on suspicion of fabricating the case against Rimsha Masih. International press reports said that witnesses claimed that the Islamabad clergy placed torn copies of the Qu’ran in a bag of ashes and trash the girl was taking to the garbage. Ms. Masih remains in police custody. A hearing on bail, originally set for September 3, was rescheduled for September 7. Pakistani Christian groups welcomed the arrest of the cleric as a possible indication that charges would be dropped against the girl.
Many Christians fled the area where Ms. Masih lives in the wake of the arrest, according to the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a religious liberty lobby based in London with an office in Lahore (claas.org.uk).
In Solidarity with Pakistani Minorities
“We have a long-standing commitment to religious liberty globally and to the beleaguered Christian minority in Pakistan,” said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of Global Ministries, which has personnel, projects, and partners in 136 countries. “We are in solidarity with our mission partner, the Church of Pakistan, in working toward greater freedom for all the people in that country. We welcome the opportunity to support the September hearings.”
Global Ministries has given $6,000 toward the hearings, said Rebecca Asedillo, the mission agency’s regional executive who relates to Pakistan. “Our support will help to cover the costs of two of the 20 people coming from Pakistan to the hearings in Geneva.”
The hearings will coincide with a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The World Council of Churches, comprised of hundreds of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches, aims in the hearing to develop common strategies and actions to promote the protection of Pakistani religious minorities. Issues to be considered include possible repeal of the blasphemy law and ways to end “gross human rights” violations based on religion. One major problem with the blasphemy law, according to observers, is that it holds a person or a community guilty until innocence can, if ever, be proven.
Religious extremism and the persecution of religious minorities are increasingly serious in Pakistan, according to a World Council of Churches’ background paper on the hearings. The paper states:
Repression, intolerance, and fear have become the order of the day. The minority communities continue to suffer because of the misuse of the blasphemy law…which is used to target both Muslim and minority communities, such as Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadias [a Muslim group considered heretical by orthodox Islam].
The General Board of Global Ministries has come to the defense of the Pakistani Christians and questioned the use of the blasphemy law on numerous occasions in recent years. Religious liberty and the rights of religious minorities are fundamental in The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles.
In early September 2009, the president of the board, Bishop Bruce R. Ough of West Ohio, and the national president of United Methodist Women, Inelda Gonzalez, joined in a statement calling for an end to violence against Pakistani Christians. That action was triggered in part by a series of attacks, including arson, on churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.
In early March 2011, Kemper, Global Ministries’ general secretary, issued a letter of support for Pakistani Christians on the occasion of the assassination of the most prominent Christian in government service, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minority affairs. His murderers objected to his support of the rights of religious minorities, which should have equal rights with Muslims under the original constitution adopted in 1947, when Pakistan became independent of Great Britain.
Blasphemy provisions were initially seen as governing the interactions among contending Muslim factions. Over the past two decades, as the World Council background paper says, Christians “have been living in a state of fear and terror, as the blasphemy law has become a source of friction between the country’s majority…and minority religious communities.”
Protestants in Pakistan
The Church of Pakistan is a rallying force for the small Protestant community. This union church was formed in 1970 by merger of various Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations.
In a 2009 interview, Bishop John Malik, former moderator of the Church of Pakistan, told a Global Ministries reporter that the Christians' faith remains strong despite persecution.
“Even though there are eruptions of violence, the church goes on, and the church has its very strong ministries,” said the leaders of the Diocese of Lahore, who is set to retire at the end of September 2012. He approaches retirement, he told a Lahore journalist in August, with the belief that Christians and Muslims can learn to live together in peace.
Get more information on the hearings from the World Council of Churches.