LAHORE, Pakistan — Munir Masih's older brother is the only one living here who can walk out of the front door, go to the shops and return with food. The family has sent away two of their sons to prevent them from revealing the family's identity to the neighbors.
“We do not mix up with our neighbors and do not talk with them about where we have come from,” says Masih. “If we get the slightest hint that someone from outside the locality is asking about us, we move from there.” They have moved eight times in the past year.
Four years ago Masih and his wife Ruqqaya Bibi were accused of blasphemy by the driver of a Muslim Pashtun family living in their hometown of Mustafa Abad in Punjab province. Both of them Christian, they were convicted by a Lahore court and sentenced to life imprisonment. This conviction was overturned by the Lahore High Court two years ago.
Upon their release, however, Masih and Bibi learned that their Pashtun accusers wanted to kill them. They went into hiding: In addition to moving frequently, they have changed their phone numbers six times. They were deprived of an income after Masih was forced to leave his business behind when he left Mustafa Abad, where he used to deal in second-hand engine oil. Because revealing their identities might expose them to physical danger, Masih and Bibi have been unable to seek employment since they started living in hiding. They live in poverty, and often eat just one meal a day.
Pakistan’s laws against blasphemy — originally defined as disturbing people involved in religious worship, defiling places of religious worship, and insulting religious sentiments — were first passed in 1860 during British rule. Up until 1986, however, only 15 blasphemy cases were actually prosecuted, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). But after the scope of the laws was expanded to cover offences such as insulting the prophet Muhammed — for which the death penalty was introduced by military ruler Zia-Ul-Haq in 1986 — cases surged. According to CRSS data 247 cases were registered between 1987 and August 2012. Thirty-three people are currently on death row or serving life sentences under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, according to a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The precise allegations against Masih and Bibi involved desecration of the Quran. Ruqqaya Bibi was convicted of blasphemy for touching the Quran without performing the religious ablution and using the Quran for exorcism. Her husband was convicted for failing to stop her. Recalling an argument taking place between his children and those of the local Pashtun family's before they were accused, Masih believes their driver lodged the accusation to help them settle a score. He’s still unhappy about how the investigation was handled.
“A junior rank police officer had doubts about the charges that this Quran was used in the alleged act of exorcism. His point was that the layers of dust proved it had not been opened for long but the officers senior to him did not pay attention to his claim,” says Masih.
When Masih and Bibi were acquitted by the Lahore High Court, the court’s rationale was that the witness testimonies did not match the police reports filed against the defendants. During the trial, Islamists came to court and shouted aggressively to intimidate the judge and push for conviction, says Nadeem Anthony, a lawyer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who worked on the Masih family’s case while a law student. He says this happens regularly and that under this Islamist pressure convictions are almost guaranteed. Consequently, blasphemy accusations are often used to settle personal scores.
“These people are using this law just to win some personal grudge or to want to grab land or some personal things,” says Anthony. “And usually we've found, there is a history, the person who was blamed for blasphemy he has nothing to do with the blasphemy at all.”
But there’s another possible reason why the Masih family was targeted: religion. Christians make up only 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population. Around 96 percent of the country is Muslim.
Christians often face the brunt of Pakistan's punitive blasphemy laws and are disproportionately represented among the defendants, rights groups say. Advocate Chaudhry Shakir, the lawyer who represented the Masihs during their acquittal hearing, says Christians as well as the minority Ahmadiyya community — who consider themselves Muslims but are regarded as heretics by Orthodox Muslims — frequently find themselves victimized by these laws because of religious prejudice.
“[Christians] are soft targets,” says Shakir. “They are non-Muslims and those who are Ahmadi are also facing the same problems. And since Christians belong to a marginalized section of society, they are downtrodden, they are resourceless. Therefore they cannot put up resistance.”
Violence against alleged blasphemers — and against their lawyers and campaigners pushing for reform of blasphemy laws — is widespread.
In May, a teenager walked into a police station in the Punjabi town of Sharaqpur and shot dead an Ahmadiyya man accused of blasphemy. A lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy was also shot dead by gunmen in his office in the Punjabi district of Multan that same month.
In their current home in a southwest Lahore slum, Bibi limps around the house. She dislocated her knee a couple of days ago, but cannot afford medical treatment.
“I have not lost hope and have full faith in my god,” says Bibi. “We know our life is in danger when we go outside, but even within the confines of our house we are living a miserable life."