Pakistani Christians living in fear


St. Anthony's Cathedral, Lahore. by Kasim 39.

Pakistani Christians who are charged under the country’s blasphemy laws are living in hiding – even after being found innocent.

Under the laws, insulting Islam can be punished by death. Critics argue that the laws are being used to settle petty grievances and that Christians are disproportionately represented among defendants.

Even after Christians are acquitted, they continue to face hardship. Many leave their home areas and live in fear that extremists will track them down. Since 1990, at least 65 people have died in cases linked to blasphemy in Pakistan, although no judicial execution has ever taken place.

Rubina Bibi and her family were forced into hiding five years ago. A Christian from Ali Pur Chattha town in the Punjab province, she fled after being accused of blasphemy by a man who witnessed her arguing with a local woman who had allegedly sold her rancid butter. Bibi was held in prison for months with her one-year-old baby while the case was being decided.

Since being acquitted, she and her husband are living in Islamabad. Still in hiding, they struggle to feed their children.

‘We spend our wages on food and can hardly manage,’ she says. ‘My children don’t have clothes. What can we do?’

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were established in 1860, under British rule. Until 1986, only 15 prosecutions were brought, according to figures from the Center for Research and Security Studies. But after military ruler Zia-ul-Haq expanded the scope to include offences such as insulting the prophet Muhammad– for which the death penalty was introduced – cases have surged.

Nonetheless, there is some hope for reform since Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled in late 2015 that suggesting revisions to the blasphemy laws does not, in itself, violate the law. But the religious Right remains stiffly opposed.

Rizwan Syed

Eritrean disapora dials freedom with 'robocall'

Global diaspora group Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) is finding new ways to call for democracy and bypass the government’s strict censorship regime.

One of its information tools goes by the name of ‘robocall’. A technique loved by telemarketers, robocall allows the dissidents to record anti-government messages, which are then auto-dialled by a private company to thousands of phones in Eritrea.

EYSC’s ‘Freedom Friday’ chapter programmed a robocall to 10,000 homes five days before Eritrea’s Independence Day in May 2012. The message called on people to stage an act of peaceful defiance by staying at home.

Since winning independence from Ethiopia in 1993, single-party state Eritrea has developed a reputation as one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Earlier this year, Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked it bottom out of 179 countries on freedom of expression.

EYSC has also set up a radio station to broadcast opposition opinion on the Eritrean airwaves. Based in Europe, the shortwave transmitter’s exact location is kept secret to minimize the risk of government jamming. Drama and news are among the radio shows, which are paid for by fundraising through Facebook and donations from the group’s local chapters.

EYSC members also take to the streets. They have demonstrated for the end of dictatorship in front of Eritrean embassies and held ‘quiet’ protests outside Eritrean churches in London.

Harnet Bokrezion, chair of EYSC, says robocalls are a powerful campaign tool. ‘It’s a way to support and motivate our people inside Eritrea – to help them lose their fear – as well as to demonstrate defiance by breaking authoritarian rules,’ she said.

But these activists know what they are up against. After the May robocall, no-one called back.

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