'WhatsApp blasphemy' and the plight of Pakistani Christians

A Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp. DW talks to his brother about the court conviction and the plight of minorities in Pakistan.

On Friday, an anti-terrorism court in eastern Pakistan sentenced Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian, to death on blasphemy charges. James, a tailor by profession, was accused by a friend of sharing "blasphemous messages" on WhatsApp's text messaging service.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Pakistan Nadeem James wegen Gotteslästerung zum Tode verurteilt

Nadeem James

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Religious groups oppose any change to the blasphemy law and consider it necessary for Pakistan's Islamic identity.

Read more: Pakistan Christian teen detained over 'Koran burning'

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

One of Pakistan's most high profile blasphemy cases is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was found guilty of committing blasphemy while working in the fields in 2009 and was sentenced to death. In 2014, her death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Amnesty International called the verdict a "grave injustice."

Read more: Asia Bibi's appeal against death penalty - A test case for Pakistan

In one case, a young girl between the ages of 10 to 14 years with Down syndrome, was accused in August of 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her home town and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

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In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

Read more: Pakistan journalism student latest victim of blasphemy vigilantes

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In an interview with DW, James' brother, Faryaad Masih, rejects blasphemy allegations against his brother and says his family has been living in constant fear since James' arrest in July 2016.

DW: You deny that your brother, Nadeem James, sent blasphemous messages through WhatsApp. Do you have any proof to substantiate your claims?

Faryaad Masih: Police say that my brothers sent blasphemous material through WhatsApp but those messages could easily have been sent by James' Muslim friends through his phone. Actually, the main complainant in the case is the one who forwarded those messages.

Why would James' friends make false allegations against him?

James has three friends who live in the Gujarat area. Their names are Shakeel, Yasir and Akram. Our neighbor's daughter, Nargis, fell in love with James although she knew that he is married with two children. His friends told him he could only marry Nargis if he converted to Islam although the girl had no problem with James' religion. My brother refused to convert to Islam, and that created a rift among friends.

How did the people in the area react after the "blasphemy" news broke?

As soon as the news spread on July 4, last year, a crowd of around 200 people surrounded our houses. James, another brother of mine and I were at work at the time. When we came to know about this, we went into hiding. The mob was ready to set our houses on fire, but police stopped them.

James surrendered after two days but our family had to move to another area for safety. It saddens me that people with whom we had lived for over 17 years became our enemies after the incident.

Are you still afraid?

After James' arrest things became quite normal. But since his death sentence, fear has swept across the Christian community in the area. We rarely venture out of our house and live in constant fear. We know that anything can happen to us.

Pakistan Lahore Protest Trauer nach Anschlag Christenverfolgung

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination

Who is providing you legal help?

No one is helping us. Our cattle have been stolen. I ran a furniture shop with a Muslim friend who gave me only 40,000 rupees [316 euros] for furniture worth over 250,000 rupees [1,977 euros]. When I demanded more money, he started threatening me. Our neighbors don't talk to us and people in the area are reluctant to interact with us.

Do you plan to appeal James' death sentence?

We are hiring a new lawyer through a non-governmental organization. We will appeal against his conviction and pray for his release. Our previous lawyer did not defend James properly. He did not even ask the court to investigate how the blasphemous message originated.

What kinds of problems do Christians have to face in Pakistan?

James told me about a 14-year-old Christian boy in his jail who has been convicted of blasphemy. How can such a young boy commit such a thing? There is no justice for Christians in Pakistan.

What sort of help are you expecting from Pakistan's civil society over James' issue?

We are poor people. My brothers' wives have also been implicated in a false case of abetment. I am an illiterate person, so is James. He did not complete his primary education. His friends framed him. The authorities should take notice of our situation.

The interview was conducted by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.

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Harsh penalties

In Pakistan, it is illegal to drink, eat or even smoke in public during Ramadan. You can be sent to jail, heavily fined, or may even be beaten by vigilantes. Earlier this month, the country's lawmakers introduced stricter penalties that could see people jailed for up to three months for a violation.

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'This is not Islam'

Bakhtawar Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was quick to condemn the latest amendment, dubbing the law "ridiculous." "Not everyone in Pakistan will be fasting - children in school, the elderly, people with medical issues - Should we arrest them for drinking water?" tweeted Bhutto. "People are going to die from heat stroke and dehydration with this ridiculous law."

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Obliged to fast

"A person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall not eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan," says the Ehtiram-e-Ramadan (Respect for Ramadan) law, which was introduced by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1981.

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Austerity and peity

Theologically, Ramadan is about austerity. It teaches Muslims to be pious, to stay away from evil, to fast during the day, and to donate money to the poor. "Zakat" (which means alms-giving in Arabic) is an Islamic tradition in which Muslims give part of their earnings to those in need, particularly during this holy month.

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Unbearably hot weather

The Islamic month of Ramadan coincides with sweltering temperatures in most Muslim-majority countries. In 2015, a brutal heat wave killed over 1,250 people in Pakistan - many of them died of dehydration while fasting. Even then, the government did not relax the 36-year-old law. Some clerics did, however, say it was permissible to break the Ramadan fast for health reasons.

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No respite

Nearly all restaurants are closed from fajr (dawn) until maghreb (dusk), and shopkeepers only sell takeaway food items. If you are hungry or thirsty the only place for you is home. At offices - both public and private - you are not allowed to eat.

Society

Rising religious extremism

With the war in Afghanistan and growth of Islamist organizations such as the Taliban in the region, things have taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. Religious extremism and intolerance are on the rise in the South Asian Islamic country. At the same time, Ramadan is also an opportunity for extremist and militant outfits to rake in cash through charity donations.

Society

Vigilantism

Incidents of religious vigilantism have spiked in the past few years, with fanatic mobs trying to enforce their own version of Shariah. A number of people have been lynched on unproven accusations of blasphemy. Observers say the existence of various Islamic laws has emboldened radicals to take matters into their own hands and dole out "justice" to what they deem un-Islamic. (shs)