Remembering an “unspeakable ordeal” on International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief
- Religious freedom advocates call for increased international action as violence towards religious minorities increases
- Day (22 August) arrives shortly after news of safe refuge found in Europe for Pakistani Christian couple facing death threats
(20 August 2021) – This Sunday marks the third annual “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.” The international day comes only shortly after news of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel finding refuge in the EU after having gone through an “unspeakable ordeal”.
“No one should be persecuted because of their faith. Today, and every day, we should remember those who have faced violence because of their religious beliefs. For too long, many governments have violated the fundamental rights of people of faith by allowing impunity for egregious crimes committed against religious minorities, including Christians. Therefore we urge States to take all necessary measures to ensure that religious freedom is protected for everyone, everywhere,” said Kelsey Zorzi, President of the UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Director of Advocacy for Global Religious Freedom at ADF International.
Religious freedom advocates around the world are calling for increased international action to counter religious persecution.
Violence over allegations of blasphemy
Pakistani Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, who had been on death row for seven years on false blasphemy charges, safely arrived in Europe this month. The Lahore High Court had overturned their death sentence in early June. A session court had sentenced them to death by hanging in 2014. The parents of four faced death threats after the news of their acquittal broke.
Shagufta and Shafqat had been living in poverty with their four children in a mission compound of the Gojra Church in Punjab, Pakistan. On 18 June 2013, allegedly blasphemous text messages were sent to a cleric and a lawyer from a phone allegedly registered in Shagufta Kausar’s name. Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were arrested and charged with blasphemy on 21 July 2013. The couple is illiterate and would not have been able to write any text messages at all. Kauser claimed that her phone had been missing for a month at the time of the incident. It is uncertain who sent the messages and for what reason.
Zahmat Akhtar, son of the imprisoned couple, remembers when the police came to arrest his parents in 2013: “I saw the police beating my father. He is paralyzed from the waist down, so he didn’t feel pain in his legs, but they also hit him in his face and beat him with gun butts on his back. They forced him to say that he had committed blasphemy”. Watch the full interview here.
““We are so relieved to finally be free. The last eight years have been an unspeakable ordeal, but we are so happy to be reunited with our children,” said Shafqat Emmanuel on behalf of the family.
“We are very grateful that so many people, especially the teams from ADF International and the Jubilee Campaign, helped and protected us by bringing us to safety. Although we will miss our country, we are happy to finally be somewhere safe. Hopefully, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan will soon be abolished, so others won’t suffer the same fate as Shagufta and I,” he continued.
“We are delighted that Shagufta and Shafqat have, at long last, been released and have reached safety. Sadly, their case is not an isolated incident but testifies to the plight that many Christians and other religious minorities experience in Pakistan today. While the right to religious freedom is protected by the Pakistani constitution, many face severe persecution and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia with ADF International, a human rights organisation supporting the couple.
Punishable by death
Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and though no one has been formally executed for it, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused of the crime. Emmanuel had been tortured into making a false confession. They beat him and threatened to strip Kausar naked and let her walk across town. A session court sentenced Kausar and Emmanuel to death. They launched an appeal in the Lahore High Court, which has now acquitted them of all charges.
The family faced death threats by extremists despite being acquitted.
Over 200 Pakistani Christians were accused of blasphemy in 2020, and though no one has been formally executed for it, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused of the crime.
Recent reports show that violence carried out by governments against religious minorities is on the rise. The Pew Research Center reported that over 95 countries have been found to unjustly use government force, such as physical abuse, to coerce religious communities. Among these countries, at least 20 have reported cases of violence that resulted in death.
Non-state actors are also responsible for acts of violence against religious minorities. Cases involving physical violence from non-state actors have increased at least 19 percent since 2017. Radical extremists in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, such as India and Pakistan, are largely responsible for these attacks. Mob violence, which regularly occurs in over 41 countries, is also used to intimidate and harm religious minorities.
International efforts are taking place to protect religious minorities. The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), an alliance of 32 countries committed to advancing religious freedom, has recently issued several statements condemning violence based on religion or belief.
“The international community must hold governments accountable for engaging in or tolerating acts of violence against people of faith. In a world where 13 Christians are killed every day because of their faith, much work remains to be done. Simply commemorating victims will not prevent further religious persecution from happening. Coordinated, global efforts are necessary to reduce the violence Christians and other religious minorities face daily,” said Zorzi.
Images for free use in print or online in relation to this story only (Copyright: family handout (first 4 pictures); ADF International (last three))