I went to a church this Sunday. It wasn’t a planned visit but a friend of mine had promised to attend and I tagged along.
The church itself was a one-room affair, nestled deep in the Christian community that lives behind Ittefaq Hospital. The walls were painted a fetching shade of purple and bedecked with spangly silver stars. Women sat in neat rows on the left while men sat on the right. When we arrived, there was an organist in full flow and the electronically aided sounds of “Hallelujah” could be heard all the way out in the alleyways outside the church. For a good Shia boy whose main exposure to organised religion is via majalis in Muharram, it was all very surreal.
But when the music stopped and the pastor took the lectern, everything snapped back into focus. If I closed my eyes and focused only on the cadences of the pastor, the sermon itself was not very different from either the khutba delivered on Fridays or the majalis observed during every Muharram.
The focus of the sermon was the well-known story of Jonah and the whale. In case, you don’t know the details, the Bible says that the Prophet Jonah was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh to inform them of their wickedness. Instead of obeying the will of God though, Jonah decides to flee from his destiny by sailing off in the direction opposite to Nineveh. Unfortunately for the Prophet Jonah, his ship runs into a giant storm. The sailors on board the ship realise that this is no ordinary storm and when Jonah confesses his actions, they decide to save themselves by tossing him overboard. The sea then immediately returns to a dead calm while Jonah is swallowed by a giant whale in whose stomach he then spends the next three nights.
Just another standard sermon on another standard Sunday, you might say. Except, of course, that this past Sunday was not just another Sunday for the Christians of Lahore. This Sunday was the day after a mob of thousands, angered by allegations of blasphemy, had assaulted a Christian community in Badami Bagh and burnt more than 100 houses.
As the indispensible Amir Mir has observed, the Badami Bagh attack was not an isolated incident. Instead, it was a further blemish on “the already depressing record of the PML-N government”. As noted by Mir, it is now almost four years since SSP hooligans burnt alive eight Christians in Gojra, and yet, not one of the 72 accused persons — incidentally including the president of the local PML-N chapter — has yet been convicted.
This past Sunday was, therefore, more than just another Sunday. This Sunday was a day that the Christians of Lahore were forced to confront yet again the ugly fact that they were very very alone, very very exposed and very very dispensable.
In light of all this, it would have been understandable for the sermon to have been either angry or self-pitying. Instead, it was neither. What the pastor told his flock of Lahori Christians was that like the other sailors on the boat endangered by Jonah’s disobedience, a community too can be placed in peril by the acts of a few individuals: in other words, the Badami Bagh attack was the work of misguided idiots, not the expression of a deeper hatred against Christians. And so, the sermon resounded not with hate or even the anger of an oppressed minority but with the love of citizens for their country. It was, if anything, a perfect example of “turning the other cheek” and it left me humbled and deeply moved.
Not all members of the Christian community were as peaceable as those I saw in the church. Some of them took to the streets where they were lathi-charged and tear-gassed by the ever-obliging Punjab Police. The chief minister of Punjab, however, expressed his shock and horror over the Badami Bagh incident and appointed a committee to investigate. Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of that gesture was diminished by the fact that the committee was to be headed by Rana Sanaullah.
More substantive relief for the Christians of Lahore arrived in the form of a suo-motu notice from the chief justice of Pakistan who demanded a full report from the Government of Punjab. As admirable as that gesture is, may I humbly suggest that it is time for the courts of this country — and specifically the superior judiciary — to do more than simply harass the executive branch.
The root cause of the Badami Bagh incident was an allegation of blasphemy. That allegation joins a host of other such allegations festering in the bowels of the judicial system. These cases linger within the system because both the police and the lower judiciary are intimidated by the thugs who abuse the law. Consequently, the merits of the allegations often don’t get examined for years.
Given the precarious position of the lower judiciary and the police, I don’t blame them for wanting to avoid blasphemy cases. But the superior judiciary does not have that excuse. The High Courts of our country have ample power to act as trial courts in appropriate circumstances. Now is the time for them to exercise that power. If even a few false complainants were punished, the ability of the blasphemy law to be abused would be greatly reduced.
I know that High Court trials are rare (the last known criminal trial in the Lahore High Court was that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) but these are unusual times. What is at stake is not just the social fabric of our country but our collective existence as a nation. The civil servants of Pakistan are told every day by their Lordships to have the courage to follow the law. It is time for their Lordships to lead by example.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2013.