At The Church Up-Close Seminar, at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, in September, Fr Robert McCulloch SSC was asked to give some perspectives about the current situation of Christians and Muslims in Asia with a specific emphasis on Pakistan and the issues regarding blasphemy in Muslim countries.
Complexities, overstatements, and a balance in analysis. These are the three modalities which I see as being essential for understanding the Muslim world, the situation of Christians in Muslim countries, and the blasphemy laws especially in Pakistan.
Complexities. Muslims are fragmented and divided. I see the major issue for Muslims as not one of confrontation with the “West” but their ongoing inability to resolve the major ideological religious fault line among themselves as Sunni and Shia that runs through the Muslim world and Muslim countries. Think immediately about Yemen and Bahrein in these terms.
It is an issue that Christians or those coming from a Christian tradition cannot solve.
This leads to another complexity: the lucrative supply of weapons into this ideological arena which is sanctioned and encouraged by Western, Russian and other governments and by politicians. This is no more than institutionalized gun-running on an extraordinary scale. I find it incomprehensible how the British Parliament can approve the surgical bombing of Syria after the chemical warfare there while the UK is a major source of the weaponry being used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This is selective indignation at its commercial and capitalist best. It is little wonder that UK politicians want the Archbishop of Canterbury to stick to religion and keep out of politics.
The complexities leading to the First Gulf War in 1991, the lies about “weapons of mass destruction” and the invasion of Iraq, the subsequent rise of Al Qaeda, the bombings in the USA remembered as the 9/11, Afghanistan, and on and on. I was in Karachi for all this from when it began in 1991. Its result has been the destabilizing of the Middle East, Libya, and even Nigeria, with serious effects in other countries. Who are the real criminals? What has happened to the Chilcot Report? Why have journalists allowed this report to slip into oblivion?
The religious complexity is that Muslim nations are unable to embrace and enfold Christians who are citizens of those countries into the compassion of God. Instead, Christians are treated as “dhimmi”, mere second-class tolerated residents, or as legally classified and controlled “minorities” for whom it is the sacred responsibility of the Muslim “majority” to protect as laid down by the precepts of Islam. It is certainly not an overstatement to say that in our present world, in spite of claims of Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace, Islam does not engender civil and political equity and religious freedom for all.
The two Muslim countries in the Middle East where there had been a sense of equity and religious freedom for Christians were Syria and Jordan, more so Syria in spite of everything else that has gone on there. Syria is no more due to the conflicting claims of Turkey and Saudi Arabia for regional power and the involvement of the USA, Russia, Iran and other countries for their own purposes. We only need listen to the lamentations of the Syrian Christian patriarchs and church leaders for their dying nation and their disappearing people.
The blasphemy laws. I refer only to Pakistan in this regard. The blasphemy laws were introduced between 1981-1983 by the military dictator Zia ul Haq who seized power in 1977. He used a programme of radical islamicization as the justification for his military take-over and his totalitarian control of the country. My theory for him doing this is that he had a seriously guilty conscience. His hands were badly stained with Muslim blood. During the Black September operations carried out by the Jordanian government from 1970-1971 to drive the Palestinians from Jordan, the general in charge of the operations was on secondment from Pakistan. None other than Zia ul Haq. And so he introduced the blasphemy laws to calm his conscience after the brutality he oversaw against the mainly Muslim Palestinians.
These blasphemy laws, ostensibly introduced to ensure respect for Islam, have a valid point to protect the dignity of belief and religion. However, they have consistently been mis-used and abused as a means to control and marginalize non-Muslims through a reign of fear. Christian and Hindu teachers, emerging businessmen, talented students and professionals have all been brought down by false accusations of blasphemy or stand in fear of such. There are many more Muslims than non-Muslims in jail under accusation of blasphemy. This is an indication of the viciousness both in the underbelly of Pakistani society and in political life which enables and allows religion to be used through these laws to cut down anyone.
In May 2012, the then President Asif Zardari intervened to prevent the abuse and misuse of the blasphemy laws by ensuring that each and every case be dealt with in the first instance by the highest levels of the judiciary and police in each province.
Unfortunately, subsequent governments and presidents did not maintain this resolve.
The Pakistan government knows that it is “between a rock and a hard place” with the blasphemy laws. Vatican talk of persecution of Christians in Pakistan is poorly advised and incorrect and blocks effective discourse with the Pakistan government on the matter. The terminology used should be in terms of “intense discrimination on religious grounds”.
Asia Bibi suffers greatly in jail. She is encouraged by messages and gestures of support from Pope Francis. It is important that her appeal be heard by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This will establish a necessary precedent in law for the other many pending cases because the blasphemy laws have been introduced in Pakistan under the Westminster system of law and not sharia law.
Columban Fr Robert McCulloch is the Procurator General for St Columbans Mission Society in Rome. He worked in Pakistan for over 34 years.
Listen to Christians and Muslims in Asia and blasphemy laws in Pakistan
- Read more from The Far East, November/December 2018