Christian nurses arrested under blasphemy law in Pakistan
The nurses were accused of “defiling the Koran”. A Muslim co-worker attacked one of them with a knife.
FAISALABAD · 13 APRIL 2021 · 10:15 CET
Two Christian nurses complying with a supervisor’s orders to remove stickers at a government hospital were arrested in Faisalabad, Pakistan on Friday (April 9) after a Muslim employee attacked one of them with a knife for the removal of a sticker bearing Koranic verses, sources said.
Nurse Mariam Lal and student nurse Navish Arooj were charged under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes against “defiling the Koran” after an Islamist mob demanded “death to blasphemers” inside Civil Hospital, their attorney said.
Conviction under Section 295-B is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine.
The two Roman Catholic nurses were sent to jail in judicial custody on Friday night (April 9) for their security, according to police. Their families have gone into hiding out of fear of Islamist mobs.
A Muslim co-worker attacked Lal, according to cell phone video recorded by an unidentified hospital employee showing the co-worker, identified only as Waqas, telling a group he attacked her with a knife.
He is shown saying he saw Lal ask Arooj to tear off a sticker inscribed with the Durood Sharif, an exaltation prayer used for Prophet Muhammad, from a wall cabinet.
“I could not remain silent over blasphemy of our holy prophet, so I attacked Mariam”, Waqas tells the group, who during the recording shout slogans praising Muhammad and call for the hanging of the two women. “The prophet’s respect is more precious than my life or yours.”
Attorney Akmal Bhatti, chairman of the Minorities Alliance of Pakistan, said from Faisalabad that Lal, a single parent to a teenage daughter, and Arooj, engaged to be married in two weeks, work in the psychiatric ward of the hospital.
“According to Mariam’s statement, a senior nurse had directed her on Thursday evening to remove all old wall hangings and stickers, some of them inscribed with Koranic verses. She said a sticker on a cabinet was already half torn off by some patient when Navish removed it”, Bhatti told Morning Star News.
“Mariam said she and Navish were simply following the directives when a nurse made an issue over the torn sticker, reportedly over a personal grudge.”
The matter was seemingly settled after the two Christians assured co-workers that they had no ill intentions and left the hospital after ending their duty, he said.
“On Friday morning, someone again instigated the staff, and they attacked the two women”, Bhatti said, adding that it was clear that both women had been framed in a false case. Sources said a Muslim nurse with help from Waqas instigated staff members against the two women.
Bhatti said that when word of the incident spread, an enraged mob including members of the Muslim extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) converged on the hospital, raising fears for the security of the two women and other Christian workers.
“Fortunately, a large police contingent arrived just in time to take the two women into custody safely”, he said. “We pleaded for the police not to register the FIR [First Information Report] before thoroughly investigating the allegation, but they succumbed to the pressure of the mob”.
Second hospital case
Church leaders and rights activists have appealed to the government to ensure fair investigation as panic spread among Christian medical workers in Faisalabad.
The blasphemy accusations against the two women comes after Tabeeta Gill, a nurse at a Karachi hospital and a gospel singer, was slapped, beaten and locked in a room by a violent mob on Jan. 28 after a Muslim co-worker baselessly accused her of blaspheming Islam.
Police initially cleared her of denigrating Muhammad but later succumbed to pressure of an Islamist mob that converged on their station and charged her with insulting Muhammad, punishable by death under Section 295-C.
Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, the prime minister’s special representative on religious affairs, that he had taken notice of the case and would ensure a fair investigation.
“It’s true that our blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores, but we are making efforts to bring legislation in this regard,” Ashrafi told Morning Star News. “The government will not allow any person to take the law into their own hands by using the religion card”.
False accusations of blaspheming Islam in Pakistan are common, often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.
Currently, 24 Christians are in prison due to blasphemy charges. They are defendants in 21 blasphemy cases at various levels of the judicial process.
The government’s failure to curb the misuse of the blasphemy laws is emboldening false accusers, rights activists and church leaders say.
A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those convicted of blasphemy, but the government dismissed the recommendation. It stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.
While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$6).
Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.
Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamist sentiments in the Muslim-majority country.
They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.
The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7 re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.