2 Pakistani Christian nurses charged with blasphemy, could face life in prison

Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020.
Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020. | ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Police in Pakistan’s Punjab province arrested two Christian nurses on blasphemy charges after hospital staff accused them of scratching a sticker with a verse from the Quran written on it off a cupboard. One of the nurses was allegedly attacked with a knife by a colleague.

The nurses, identified as Maryam Lal and third-year student Navish Arooj who work in Civil Hospital in Punjab’s Faisalabad city, were arrested on Friday, according to the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

The police complaint alleges that a Muslim nurse, identified as Rukhsana, witnessed Arooj scratching and removing the sticker on a hospital cupboard and handing it to Lal.

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According to the Washington, D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice, a video circulated over social media showed an employee, identified as Mohammad Waqas, calling Lal vulgar names and telling a room full of other employees that she tore down a sticker carrying a Muslim prayer.

“Then he said that when he found out about it, he confronted the Christian nurse Mariam. He said, ‘I am a Muslim; how can a Muslim sit quietly over blasphemy of his Prophet,’” the ACLJ report states. “Then he proudly told the employees gathered in the room that he attacked Mariam with a knife, but failed when the blade broke, only injuring her arm.”

An aggressive mob gathered outside the hospital when police came to make the arrest and threatened to kill the two nurses, according to a video posted by Pak Adam TV Ministries.

According to ACLJ, charges have been filed under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code outlawing the desecration of the Quran or “extract therefrom,” which is punishable by life in prison.

“This is not the first incident of this kind, but in the past, we have seen how people use this law to settle their personal grudges or punish their rivals,” said CLAAS-UK Director Nasir Saeed in a statement. 

“I still remember 2009 when a Lahore Muslim factory owner was accused of committing blasphemy for removing an old calendar inscribed with holy Quranic verses from a wall. A factory worker killed him and two other men, and the enraged mob also assaulted management employees and set the factory on fire.”

Saeed argues that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue to imprison and claim the lives of innocent people. Without government action to reform the blasphemy law, Saeed said that people like Waqas are emboldened to take the law into their own hands. 

In January, another Christian nurse, 30-year-old Tabitha Nazir Gill, was accused of blasphemy at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital in Karachi city in Sindh province, where she worked for nine years, the U.S.-based persecution advocacy organization International Christian Concern reported at the time.

A Muslim co-worker, who was not identified, allegedly made the accusation after a personal dispute over receiving cash tips from hospital patients.

According to the ICC report, the hospital’s head nurse instructed all medical staff not to receive cash tips from patients. Gill reportedly reminded the co-worker who she saw collect money from a patient about the instruction. The co-worker then accused Gill of committing blasphemy.

Hospital staff reportedly beat Gill after tying her up with ropes and locking her in a room before police arrived.

The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan's penal code, is frequently misused for personal revenge. While it permits the death penalty for those convicted of insulting Islam or its Prophet Muhammad, it carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.

Islamic radicals also use the law to target religious minorities — Christians, Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus.

A Lahore-based group, Centre for Social Justice, recently reported that 200 people were accused of blasphemy in 2020 — a record number of cases in one year. In total, the group reports that at least 1,855 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 1987.

International advocates have long called on Pakistan to reform its penal code as it is often used to persecute religious minorities. 

A Pakistani Christian, Shahbaz Bhatti, who served as minister of minority affairs, was assassinated in March 2011 after calling for the blasphemy laws' repeal. Former Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was also assassinated for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law. Both men advocated for Christian woman Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. She was acquitted years later by the Pakistan Supreme Court.

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