On one of the first days of November 2014 the rumor spread throughout the city of Kasur in the province of Punjab in the nation of Pakistan that Sajjad Maseeh and his wife Shama Bibi, both Christians, had burned verses from the Muslim holy book, the Koran. That rumor was soon followed by a mob of some 1,200 outraged Muslims who trailed Sajjad and his wife to the industrial building in which they both worked.
Because the leaders of the mob wanted to prevent Sajjad and Shama, the mother of their four young children who was four months pregnant at the time, to attempt to flee from them, they broke their legs. And because Shama was wearing an outfit that didn’t easily burn, she was wrapped in flammable cotton.
The mob then held the couple over a brick furnace until their clothes caught fire, before throwing both of them into that same brick furnace in which they were both burned alive.
This atrocity was witnessed by scores of on-lookers; among them was Javed Maseeh, Sajjad’s first cousin. Javad, who had pleaded in vain to the mob to spare the couple, spoke these chilling words over telephone to America’s NBC News several days after the attack: “The bones are still being found. Friends keep collecting them and bringing them to us in batches of two and three. We will bury these bones when we have [enough] for the bodies. But we will not find all of them. I’m sure.”
Also in 2014, Pervez Rafique founded an organization, Bleeding for Belief, that seeks to put an end to atrocities like those visited on Shajjad Maseeh and Shama Bibi and to end religion-based genocide in Pakistan.
Rafique, 45, possesses a deep personal understanding of the evil of intolerance in Pakistan. In January 2011 his close friend and political ally Salman Taseer, the former Muslim governor of Punjab, was assassinated by religious extremists.
His murderers’ grievance: Taseer was a leading and highly respected voice opposing the Blasphemy Laws. In March of that same year, another close friend and ally of Rafique, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian former federal minister for minorities, was assassinated by religious extremists—for the same reason that Taseer had been murdered two months earlier.
“It was a very sad and tragic time for me and for all peace loving people of Pakistan. I had lost two friends, and the people had lost two strong voices for human rights for all people of Pakistan,” he told me.
Serving at the time in the Punjab Parliament in one of the few seats that minorities were permitted to hold, Rafique, despite numerous death threats, continued the crusade that had been begun by his two fallen friends. However, when, in the early days of 2014, he received information from his political allies that religious extremists were planning his imminent assassination he fled to America as a political refugee, taking up residence in Queens.
“The genocide that is taking place in Pakistan today has very dark roots,” Rafique said, “beginning with changing the name and basic idea of Pakistan from a democracy to an Islamic state, to labeling its citizens as Muslim or non-Muslim, and then finally these past awful 35 years to these barbaric Blasphemy Laws.”
One of the most significant political events in the history Rafique sketches occurred in 1973, although it seemed to be benign at the time.
In that year then President Zulficar Ali Bhutto persuaded the National Assembly (Pakistan’s national legislative body) to adopt a new Constitution establishing a parliamentary system of government. The new Constitution, the fourth since Pakistan secured its independence in 1947 appeared at the time to be a great gift to all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.
The three prior Constitutions, which were constructed with provisions limiting the rights and freedoms of minorities, went against the core principles of Pakistan’s Sunni founding father Ali Jinnah, who championed the idea that citizens of all religions should be treated equally.
Of the three constitutions, many in the region today believe that it was the first Constitution, which changed the name of the nation from the Democratic Nation of Pakistan to the Islamic Nation of Pakistan, that struck the initial legal and symbolic blow against the rights of minorities, leading to the genocide that was to follow.
With the passing in 1973 of the then new fourth Constitution, which introduced a democratic form of parliamentary governance in which all citizens could cast their vote, Jinnan’s earlier concept of a Pakistan that treated all of its citizens humanely, fairly, and equally, seemed at first glance to be becoming a reality.
But it didn’t turn out that way. While the fourth Constitution expanded the rights of all citizens to vote in parliamentary elections, it contained amendments that severely restricted the civil rights of minorities, rather than expanding them, as was first hoped.
Under the provisions of the fourth Constitution the Muslim holy book, the Koran, became the “supreme law” of the nation, which ominously separated its citizens into two separate categories “Muslim” and “non-Muslim.”
Between 1980 and 1986, the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq expanded the Blasphemy Laws, making the alleged desecration of the Koran a crime punishable by life imprisonment and making the alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad a crime punishable by life in prison or death.
These new provisions were a perversion of the laws’ original intent. Begun in 1860 by Pakistan’s then British rulers, the Blasphemy Laws original purpose were essentially to safeguard the religious rights of Muslims. But after Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the Blasphemy Laws incrementally disintegrated from protecting the rights of Muslims to denying the rights of all non-Muslims.
That hateful climate created first by the four Constitutions and then by Zia-ul-Haq’s application of the Blasphemy Laws, adhered to by Pakistan’s current ruler, Nawaz Sharif, is what has directly led to the atrocities perpetrated by gangs of angry Muslim mobs for the past 35 years, according to most journalists and scholars who follow the region today.
About 5 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million people are religious minorities. About 4 percent are Christian, and one percent of the population includes Hindus, Sufis, and the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect founded in the late 19th century in Punjab, India that many Muslims consider to be heretical. The other 95 percent are Muslim.
The members of the minorities are at constant risk, and so common are religiously motivated crimes in Pakistan that, even when Western media report on them, the Western public and political leaders soon forget them.
For instance, there was little international outcry when in April 2006 30 Hindus were murdered by Muslim terrorists in the Pakistani city of Duda.
And there was little international public outcry when in May 2010 Sunni mobs launched simultaneous attacks against two Ahmadiyya mosques in city of Lahore, killing 94 and injuring more than 120.
That deafening sound of silence continued when six months later in Lahore 50 followers of the Sufi religion were murdered and more than 200 were injured when suicide bombers detonated bombs in their holy shrine.
Nor were there discernible voices of outrage when on Sept. 23, 2013, a suicide bomber attack killed 126 and injured more than 250 Pakistani Christians who were attending church services in the city of Peshawar.
The lack of response continued after 15 more Pakistani Christians were slaughtered and more than 70 others wounded on March 15, 2015, by terrorists who detonated their bombs while the victims were practicing their religion, once again in Lahore.
Bleeding For Belief
Married and the father of a one-year-old daughter, Rafique spends most of his waking hours working through Bleeding for Belief to end the genocide in Pakistan, which first of all means getting others to oppose it. He has frequent trips to Washington’s Capitol Hill, where he often meets with members of Congress.
“At our urging Congress has passed resolutions calling for the government of Pakistan to fight the militants who are committing these crimes. It is my hope that while pressure coming from Congress has not worked yet, as it continues, the Pakistani government will finally agree to follow their demands.”
Rafique has also through his foundation met with both secular and non-secular leaders in the American Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish communities. He told me that he has been encouraged by their words of support.
“A minister,” Rafique stated, “explained that as a Christian he could forgive the terrorists but would do everything in his power to defeat them.
“A Hindu priest told me that while his religion forbids speaking badly of even the wicked, it was the duty of all Hindus to overcome the forces of evil, in Pakistan and throughout the world.
“Both a Muslim cleric and a secular leader of the Muslim community together expressed their horror over the killings, and explained that the Muslim religion preaches peace, and that the genocide of people practicing different faiths is the sole work of religious extremists who for now have hijacked their religion… These and all the other leaders I met promised their total and unconditional support to help end the genocide.”
Rafique added that he was particularly touched by the kind and sympathetic words of men and women of the Jewish religion: “To my Jewish brothers and sisters, this modern genocide brings back horrible reminders of the Holocaust committed against the Jewish people. One even told me that she hears the cries of her own murdered brethren as she learned about what is going on in Pakistan and throughout the Middle East today.”
“What I share with all of these Jewish people,” Rafique elaborated, “is the belief that if the leaders of Muslim nations followed the policies of Israel, which grants all rights and privileges to all non-Jews, the problems we face today would be over.”
“And it is my hope,” Rafique added, “that one day every Pakistani Christian, who the present government forbids from visiting the holy land, will be free to visit the nation which gave birth to Christianity.”
“The genocide against Christians in Pakistan is, as we are speaking at this very moment, also taking place against Christians in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states,” Rafique said. “What is stopping the good and kind nations of the world from using their influence and power to putting an end to the suffering of all victims of religious hatred in all places in the world?”
Two of these victims were named Sajjad Maseeh and Shama Bibi.