Pakistani Christians Killed by the Dozen

When he was a strapping 25-year-old, Francis opted to stay on in the newly formed Islamic Republic of Pakistan after the Muslim-majority state broke away from Hindu-dominated India in 1947 in a bloody separation commonly called 'the partition."

A speech by Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, guaranteeing all citizens equal rights reassured him of his decision even though Pakistan is a Muslim rather than a secular state.

By then, Francis had served in the colonial British Navy during World War II. After Pakistan gained independence from Britain, he went on to serve his country during the three wars it fought with India in 1948, 1965 and 1971.

It was not until the 1980s that religious coexistence in Pakistan took a severe bashing under the reign of Gen. Zia ul-Huq, who, under a broad Islamization process to win the support of hardliners for military rule, introduced the infamous blasphemy laws.

Under the laws, only the word of a Muslim accuser is needed to prosecute a non-Muslim on blasphemy charges, which can carry the death penalty upon conviction.

Human rights groups have charged that the laws have been all too frequently abused and turned into a tool in land and business disputes as well as a means to intimidate and threaten minorities.

Blasphemy Brings Death Sentence

"In a country where there are serious obstacles to getting a fair trial, there's a great danger of resolving personal disputes through blasphemy allegations," says Vikram Parekh, researcher for South Asia at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But this is not to say that there aren't some cases that are genuinely motivated by bigotry."

Pakistan's parallel justice system of tribal councils (jirgas) and village councils (panchayats) often take a literal interpretation of Islamic law and rights groups have charged that the handling of blasphemy cases depends more on political considerations than the fair administration of justice.

In May 1998, Dr. John Joseph, a Roman Catholic bishop of the Faisalabad Archdiocese, shot himself in the head in protest against the blasphemy charges filed against Ayub Masih, a Christian who was arrested in 1996 for allegedly "speaking against Islam" for defending Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie.

Although the Lahore High Court threw out Masih's appeal against the death sentence, on Aug. 15, the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered Masih to be released from jail.

Pakistani higher courts have frequently overturned death sentences on blasphemy counts and some experts say the political establishment does not approve of the death sentence in such cases, fearing international criticism.

A Modest Proposition

But while welcoming the Supreme Court ruling on the Masih case, I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, warns that "problems of minority rights related to the overall orientation of the State and certain provisions in the constitution create a climate in which minorities come under, and will continue to come under attack."

In 1999, when Musharraf came into power after ousting then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup, the Pakistani general promised to implement "procedural changes" to reduce the possibility of abuse of the blasphemy laws.

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