Today Pakistani authorities have arrested two Christian women over a false allegation of blasphemy. Videos circulated on social media show a crowd of enraged Muslim men circling police vehicles, chanting slogans, and demanding the women’s arrest. The crowd was gathered outside the hospital where both women worked. Policemen were seen pleading with the crowd to calm down. One video shows the police taking both women into custody and some in the crowd trying to attack them while the police were putting them in the vehicle.
Mariam Laal, a nurse, and Newish Arooj, a third-year nursing student, worked at Civil Hospital in Faisalabad where they were accused of blasphemy. According to the charges filed with the local police by Dr. Mirza Muhammad Ali (Deputy Medical Superintendent), the sanitary inspector of the hospital informed Dr. Ali that he had found out from a Muslim nurse that the two Christian women scratched and removed a sticker from a hospital cabinet. The sticker contained a verse from the Quran.
A video circulated over social media shows an employee of the hospital (who is reported to be a medical dispenser or a ward assistant named Waqas) calling Mariam vulgar names and telling a room full of other employees that she tore down a sticker, which contained a Muslim prayer, from the medicine cabinet. He further said in the video that “our” Muslim nurse called Rukhsana saw it and snatched the torn sticker from Mariam’s hand so that it’s not further defiled or thrown on the ground. 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.” 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.
At this point, no one knows if the two Christian women were responsible for removing the sticker. It also seems strange that no one complained about the sticker on the cabinet prior to this issue since there are a number of situations in which the sticker could be damaged. For example, the sticker would wear down over time, the sticker could be removed or painted over while painting the cabinet, or the sticker could be damaged simply by cleaning materials. The enraged men do not seem to care about such situations or blame the person who put the sticker at a place where it could possibly get defiled. The police, on the other hand, rushed to file charges against the two women, most likely to calm the mob down. Even if that were the intention, the case will run its course for years.
Charges have been filed under section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which states that “[w]hoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.” This means that, if convicted, both women would be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Generally, trial courts are known to convict those accused of blasphemy due to pressure from angry mobs. Even in situations where the higher courts have ultimately overturned convictions, the accused spend years in prison. One such well-known case was of Asia Bibi, who spent over nine years in prison until the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted her. Salman Taseer, Governor of the Punjab province, was shot over twenty times and killed by his own bodyguard because the late Governor disagreed with blasphemy laws and supported Asia Bibi.
This February, another Christian nurse in Karachi was accused of blasphemy after she reminded other nurses that they were violating the hospital policy by receiving money from patients. Her co-workers did not like it and accused her of committing blasphemy.
Last December, a Christian pastor was accused of blasphemy over a Facebook post, forcing hundreds of Christian families to flee the neighborhood of Charrar, Lahore, after they received threats of attacks from angry mobs.
Just last year, about 200 cases of blasphemy were registered against religious minorities as well as Muslims. The cases mentioned above, however, show that there has been an increase in the vulnerability of Christians. Mob attacks are more common when allegations are filed against Christians.
We hope that the government of Pakistan takes this matter seriously and protects its own citizens from mob violence and such serious blasphemy allegations. We also urge the authorities to file attempted murder charges against the man who bragged about attacking and trying to kill Mariam and instigating the mob.