Pakistan's Christians rally to rebellion

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FUNERAL of the Pakistani bishop who killed himself in protest against the death sentence imposed on a fellow Christian yesterday turned into a rally against the country's harsh blasphemy laws.

And in a sign of how the affair has dangerously escalated religious tensions in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, a furious mob of several hundred militant Muslims went on the rampage in a Christian village near where the funeral ceremony was taking place, setting houses on fire and terrorising residents.

Bishop John Joseph's funeral in Faisalabad cathedral drew a crowd of thousands, despite repeated clashes around the building between Christian mourners the police on Friday that ended in the police firing shots and several mourners suffering bullet wounds.

During the service, which took place under a heavy police guard, clerics shouted praise for the bishop. They repeated his demand for Pakistan to repeal the harsh religious laws which resulted in a young Catholic, Ayub Masih, being sentenced to death for allegedly praising the writer Salman Rushdie.

"Bishop John Jospeh has laid down his life for a cause," Fr Pervais Emmanuel told the crowd. "He wanted [Legal code] 295c to be abolished."

"The blood of Bishop Joseph will pave the way for a revolution," read one of the banners held up by the crowd.

Masih is still in jail, pending an appeal. But the bishop, acting on earlier threats to make a dramatic gesture, shot himself dead last week in the building where Masih was sentenced.

Unintentionally, the bishop's self-sacrifice may only have heightened tension between Muslims and the small Christian and Hindu minorities, making the repeal of the blasphemy law less likely than ever.

Yesterday, the minister for Religious Affairs, Raja Zaraful Haq, defended the law and, in reply to US calls for it to be repealed, accused Western countries of snubbing the religious sensibilities of Muslims. "Demands for scrapping the law stems from ignorance," he said.

Pakistan's Christians feel the law can be easily abused to enable Muslims to blackmail Christians and force them off their property. Masih, for example, was sentenced on the basis of the word of one Muslim neighbour.

Another Christian, Ranjah Masih, was arrested at the weekend after a Muslim accused him of defacing a board on which a Koranic verse was written during the disturbances which surrounded the arrival of Bishops Joseph's body in Faisalabad for the funeral.