Arnold Heredia.

Arnold Heredia.

The total fabric of Pakistan changed with its engagement in the United States’ proxy war against USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a war to vindicate US humiliation in Vietnam.
Pakistan was carved out of undivided India in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims. Even so, the Father of the Nation, Jinnah, emphatically declared the country would provide equal rights to its religious minorities. In 1948, the first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali, declared Islamic ideology would be the beacon for all man-made laws. The aspiration to see Pakistan as a prototype of Islamic democracy and prosperity was not fulfilled, due to successive incompetent and corrupt governments.
The masses finally pinned their hopes on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his slogan of Islamic Socialism. However, his totalitarian and corrupt rule (1971-1977) bred nationwide unrest. The Islamic lobby accused him of perjury for not fulfilling his promise of Islamic reforms, although, in obeisance to their earlier demand, he had declared the Ahmadis, a self-professed Muslim sect, as non-Muslims. The drowning Bhutto hastily promulgated Islamic Reforms which prohibited alcohol, banned horseracing and nightclubs, and changed the Sunday holiday to Friday. But it was too late.
In 1977, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by Chief of Army Staff Gen Zia ul Haq, and executed in 1979. Zia declared martial law, and wooed the Islamic parties for their political support. These parties had failed at the polls, but wielded street power.
Zia upheld Bhutto’s hasty Islamic reforms, and added Islamic punishments like public flogging, amputation, and blood money for culpable murder, constituted Islamic courts, and revisited the infamous Blasphemy Law, making it discriminatory. Zia’s Islamic reforms permeated all spheres of society; they Islamised educational syllabi and textbooks. And his separate electorates disenfranchised minorities from mainstream politics, because Muslims, Christians, and Hindus could only vote for candidates of their own religion.
The global disapproval and isolation of Zia’s military junta was set aside when Zia became an ally in the US proxy war in Afghanistan. The war, fought with US weapons, Saudi money, and portrayed as ‘Jihad’ (Holy War), irreversibly damaged Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the darkest period in Pakistan’s history, it witnessed an inflow of foreign fighters or Islamic warriors, a surge of weapons in the open market, unchecked flow of Saudi money and Wahhabi ideology, and the silence of world powers while Zia had a free hand. This was an ideal breeding ground for the present-day Taliban.
Zia amended the Blasphemy Law, an existing British Indian law. Its Sections 295 and 295A safeguarded without discrimination or preference against desecration of places of worship and deliberate malicious acts maligning any religion or religious beliefs. In 1982, under pressure from Islamists, Zia added 295B to include life imprisonment for offences against defiling the Holy Quran.
In 1986, a further amendment, 295C, mandated that maligning the Prophet Muhammed was punishable with life imprisonment or death. In 1991, the Federal Islamic Court made the death sentence mandatory. Section 295C is so vaguely worded that even unintended innuendos can be construed as denigration of the Prophet. Its abuse started soon after its enactment.
The Ahmadis, declared non-Muslims in 1974, were the first victims of this draconian law. Subsequently, many Christians were also accused of offences against 295B and 295C. Victims have been lynched by frenzied ignorant mobs, murdered in prison, and settlements razed to the ground on mere accusations; perpetrators are never punished. Fabricated evidence is presented in court, while witnesses and judges are threatened. Some judges abandon blasphemy cases. In one instance, a judge who stood his ground was murdered in his chambers.
Several human rights organisations have advocated abrogation of these laws. When President Musharraf expressed the need to adopt a procedure to ascertain such accusations, his suggestion was met with an explicit threat that he would be indicted under Blasphemy Law’s Sections 295 B and C.
More recently, the Governor of the Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, dared to call these laws ‘man-made’ when he visited in prison a poor, illiterate peasant mother condemned to death for blasphemy. He was gunned down by his own guard in the presence of his security contingent. The murderer was spontaneously declared a hero.
Scores of members of religious minorities who have the means have migrated to safe countries, while the masses struggle to survive. Discrimination in workplaces, schools, and where they live has forced some to abandon their homes and jobs. They live in hiding to escape being booked under that draconian law. Successive weak and corrupt governments chose to disregard these powerful Islamic militant groups armed with weapons, as well as a host of suicide bombers.

Prior to migrating to Melbourne in April 2001, Fr Arnold Heredia was the Executive Secretary of the ecumenical and inter-religious Justice & Peace Commission of the Diocese of Karachi, Pakistan, for 21 years. He was also a Founder Member of the national Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. He is presently a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

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