Pakistani Christians Protest Violence with 'Black Day'

Rather than celebrate Minority Day on Tuesday, most Christians in Pakistan will observe "Black Day" to protest the wave of violence that has recently hit their small community.

"The months of July and August of 2009 will be remembered as constitutional genocide of Christians in Pakistan, when under the cover of Article 295 B and C PPC (Pakistan Penal Code) Muslim mobs ransacked Christian property and killed Christians on alleged accusations of blasphemy," said Nazir S. Bhatti, president of Pakistan Christian Congress and editor of Pakistan Christian Post, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

In the 1980s, Pakistan added amendments 295 B and C which state that anyone who blasphemes against the Muslim Prophet Mohammad, any of his wives or member of his family will be punished by life imprisonment (Article 295 B), or more seriously, punished by the death penalty (295 C).

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Under the protection of these controversial laws, Muslims have regularly attacked Christians with impunity in Pakistan. And often the motivation for the attack is over monetary disputes or other everyday disagreements. Muslims would use the blasphemy laws, which do not require evidence, to escape any punishment for attacking their fellow citizen.

That was the case in the recent attacks in eastern Pakistan where a banned Muslim extremist group incited mobs to burn Christian homes and churches following an allegation that a Christian family had desecrated the Quran. After initial investigation, however, authorities found no proof of the Islamic holy book being destroyed by Christians.

Nonetheless, hundreds of Christian homes were burned in several villages in Punjab Province in July and August. Dozens of Christians were killed in the attack.

But it was the Aug. 1 attack on Gojra city in Punjab that forced the Christian community in Pakistan to unite and protest the persecution.

On Aug. 1, a mob of more than 2,000 Muslims burned the homes of Christians using a hard-to-extinguish chemical. Several of those killed in the attacks were burned alive, including one family of five who was locked inside their home by the mob. Two children – one aged six and the other, 13 – their parents and 75-year-old grandfather were locked in a room as the mob knowingly stood outside and watched their house burn, according to Agence France-Presse.

"The blasphemy law always encouraged hostility towards Christians and has been interpreted by some Muslim fanatics as license to take the law into their own hands," said Bhatti, urging the government to repeal the law.

Citing Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah's speech in Aug. 11, 1947, Bhatti reminded the audience that the country was founded on the principle of freedom of religion for all citizens.

But then he asked, "Is this reward for our role in [the] creation of Pakistan? Are we free and equal citizens or conquered by Muslim aggressors in Pakistan? Why we voted for Pakistan is major question among Pakistani Christian youth."

Others who spoke at the press conference concurred about the need to repeal Pakistan's blasphemy laws. But they also pointed out the blasphemy laws are only a symptom of a deeper problem in Pakistan.

One speaker from the International Christian Concern organization noted that lawmakers support the blasphemy laws to prove their "Muslimness" in a country that has a conservative Muslim population. Bhatti, meanwhile, said the bigger problem is the lack of elected representatives for the Christian minority in the legislative Assembly of Pakistan.

Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan's population of 176 million people and are among the country's poorest and most oppressed communities.

On "Black Day," Christians will stage peaceful protests before press clubs throughout Pakistan to demand the repeal of the blasphemy laws.

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