ArtPrize, Nobel Peace Prize and Blasphemy Prize

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Guest posting for Jennifer today is Eric Sarwar. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor from Pakistan, and founder and director of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Karachi. He is currently finishing his ThM at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Welcome, Eric!

This is a tale of three women from the same country that have all been in the news in the past week. At the annual ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI, I saw the beautiful installation “Intersections” by Pakistan artist Anila Qayum from Lahore, Pakistan. She not only won the public grand prize but was co-winner of the juried grand prize. Her art provided a beautiful positive image of Pakistanis in the USA.

The second breaking news on global media was of Malala Yousufzai, from the Swat Valley of Pakistan. She was the youngest person, at age seventeen, ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for standing up for girl’s education after being targeted and wounded by Taliban extremists at the age of 15, along with few other girls from that area. Since then, she has become a spokesperson for all young women in Pakistan and beyond who desire an education. 

The third woman, Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, is one of the least of the least in Pakistan, a poor Christian farm worker and mother of three girls. While working on a farm in hot weather on June 19, 2009, she got into a dispute with a group of Muslim women who objected to her drinking from a well belonging to Muslim women and also drinking from their cup, because as a Christian she was considered “unclean.” Hours after the incident, one of the women claimed to a local cleric that Aasiya had made disparaging remarks about the Prophet. As a result of the allegations, a furious mob arrived at Aasiya’s home and savagely beat her and members of her family. She was later arrested and charged under the Section 295 C blasphemy law, “a hanging sword” for minorities in Pakistan. She was eventually sentenced to death and her entire family was forced to go into hiding after receiving threats on their lives.

On October 17, 2014, despite international outrage and hundreds of thousands of people signing a petition for her release, Asia Bibi, now age fifty, lost her appeal to the High Court in Lahore. Her sentence of death was upheld and she now faces death by hanging. If this sentence is carried out, she will be the first women executed for “blasphemous” comments about the prophet Mohammed. However, she was given 30 days to appeal to the national High Court of Pakistan.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

Under British rule since 1927, the ordinance 295-A protected against any deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage anyone by insulting their religion or beliefs. After independence in 1947, under the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq. Presidential Ordinance 295-B was added in 1982, and defiling the Holy Qur’an became punishable with imprisonment for life. That law was expanded in 295-C through the Criminal Law (amended) Act III of 1986 regarding any derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable for fine.” 

That blasphemy law claims Christian lives to this day. Asia Bibi continues to languish in prison more than four years after she was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Her case generated even more shocking global headlines in 2011, when two prominent politicians, Salman Taseer, Muslim governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister, both of whom tried to help Asia Bibi, were assassinated, one by his own bodyguard. Not only that, but lawyers showered the killer with rose petals when he appeared in court, and the judge who convicted him of murder had to flee the country. A mosque in Islamabad has since been named after this murderer.

The U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom reported that in Pakistan from January 2012 to June 2013, there were 203 incidents of sectarian violence with 1,800 casualties and 700 deaths. 37 attacks were on Christians, with 11 killed and 36 injured. Three were shot dead and five girls were raped. These are just what was reported, a tip of the iceberg.     

Who will stand for Christians in Pakistan?

Muslims in USA are struggling hard to defend their religion from the accusation of intolerance. Certainly, radical Islamists do not represent all of Islam. They defend on media that Islam is a religion of peace and the prophet of Islam is a blessing for the world. Moderate Muslims are declaring that Islam has been hijacked by radicals. But when will more Islamic organizations raise their voices for poor, powerless, voiceless and religiously discriminated Christians in Pakistan?

And where is the church in the West that brought Christianity to that region and then left them alone to suffer for their faith? Many Muslims in Pakistan considered Christians their friends. Christians and Muslims alike suffer under the blasphemy law. But many Christians in the Western world are even ignorant about the existence of Christians in Pakistan.

Anila and Malala are both enjoying their prizes, the ArtPrize and Nobel Peace Prize. Both of these daughters of Pakistan had resources and support from family and friends to rise above the oppressive Pakistani society that has made life so difficult for women. They both are symbols of hope for many Pakistani girls and women that dream of a better life for themselves and their children. 

Will Anila and Malala raise their voices for Aasiya Bibi? Will the Church in North America stand for poor Christians and especially for Aasiya Bibi, who is struggling and paying a cost for her faith? Will Muslims now in the Western world be proven wrong to those who accuse Islam of being a religion of terror and war, by raising their voices for Aasiya’s release from prison? Will Aasiya ever be able to enjoy her life prize with her family?Who will turn her death prize to a life prize?

Anila, Malala and Aasiya! Three women, three different destinies. 

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