Lesson series 03: Non-Discrimination and Right to Life

(A special lesson for religious groups)

The Issue

The single incident which opens the way to discussion of a number of human rights issues, as laid out in this lesson, is the (controversial) act of suicide of the Pakistani Catholic Bishop John Joseph on May 6 1998.

Rev. Dr. John Joseph, 66, was a Catholic bishop of Faisalabad and a high profile human rights activist. He was widely respected by the human right groups and organisations who objected to these laws as they would hinder Christian-Muslim dialogue. Bishop John Joseph had led two nation wide protests of the Christian community and even went on hunger strike for the cause.

The first protest was in 1992 against the government’s proposal to include a column for one’s religious faith in the national identity cards. Christians and other minorities in the community thought that the new identity card system, where one’s religion is mentioned, would lead to further victimisation of the religious minorities in Pakistan, such as the denial of equal opportunities in employment, promotions, etc.

The second nation-wide protest was in 1994 against the murder of Manzoor Masih, a Christian tried on blasphemy, outside the court right after the court hearing on 5 April 1994. The protest went on for years but cases under the blasphemy law continued. Sometimes victim went into hiding, and ones like Bishop John Joseph helped them to survive. But not everyone could be saved. The mobs acting under the instructions of manipulators attacked and killed those suspected of or convicted of blasphemy openly, even in front of the courts.

It was at the very spot where one of these killings took place, in the corridors of a Sessions court in Sashiwal (700 km from the capital Islamabad), that Bishop John Joseph sacrificed his life. He shot himself on 6 May 1998, in protest against the death sentence, for blaspheming Islam, which was passed on Ayub Masih on 27 April. On 6 November 1997, Ayub Masih, a Christian, was shot at in this same spot.

The Context

Pakistan has a very poor track record of protecting its minorities against social injustice. Reports and surveys by independent agencies reveal that minorities in Pakistan are deprived of basic civil liberties and equal opportunities in jobs, education and political representation. Quite often, they are the target of harassment, violence and even murder by mobs blinded by religious frenzy. Ironically, the State, instead of safeguarding the rights of minorities, has enacted laws which are patently discriminatory.

The blasphemy law happens to be one of them. The law on blasphemy had existed since 1927. But before the last decade, rarely had one heard of this law ever being used. Ever since the vague and arbitrary definition of blasphemy was inserted into the Pakistani Penal Code in the 1980s and the punishment had increased from two years of imprisonment to the death sentence, the incidents of alleged blasphemy have suddenly risen. Under the blasphemy law the defiling of the Holy Quran is punishable with life imprisonment, defiling the name of the Holy Prophet with death and defiling the other personages with three years imprisonment.

THEMES:

  1. Non-Discrimination

  2. The Right to Life

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