ITTANWALI, Pakistan (Reuters) - To understand why Pakistani Christians feel so threatened by growing Muslim extremism in their country, speak to the uniformed police guard at the jail where a Christian woman is on death row, accused of blasphemy.
Aasia Bibi, a mother of four, was sentenced to hang in November for insulting the Prophet Mohammad, under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. Last week, an outspoken liberal politician was killed by his own bodyguard for campaigning for her release.
The assassin has since been hailed as a hero by many in this Muslim majority country where a harsh, often unforgiving, brand of Islam is growing in strength.
Prison guard Ansaar Jameel, at the Sheikhpura prison where Bibi is held, summed up widespread sentiment after the killing of Punjab province governor Salman Taseer: “What happened was justified.”
Taseer’s death -- and the lionising of his killer -- have struck more fear than ever in the mostly Catholic and Protestant Christian community accounting for about two percent of the population of 170 million.
The self-confessed assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been showered with rose petals after court appearances. Hundreds of lawyers have offered to defend him for free.
These are troubling signals that religious extremism has permeated much of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed ally the United States sees as indispensable in its war on global militancy.
“If a bodyguard can kill a governor, a high profile person, a famous person here in Pakistan, the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, what can happen to me?,” asked Christian activist Shahzad Kamran, who provides moral, legal and financial support for people convicted of violating the blasphemy law.
Kamran has stopped visiting Bibi in jail for fear of his life. “Anybody, anybody can kill me with the same allegation as Salman Taseer was confronting,” he said.
Pakistan’s modern Christians are the children of Hindus or Muslims converted by missionaries who came to the Indian subcontinent some 250 years ago.
Christians and Muslims generally live in harmony, but many say they are treat as second-class citizens and feel insecure for several reasons, including the blasphemy law and sporadic militant attacks on churches.
Under the law, anyone convicted of speaking ill of Islam or the Prophet Mohammad faces life imprisonment or the death penalty. Bodyguard Qadri and his supporters accused Taseer of being a blasphemer, simply because he spoke against the law.
While Muslims are charged with blasphemy in more than 50 percent of cases, human rights activists say the legislation is often used to persecute minorities, or settle personal scores -- as Aasia Bibi claims happened to her.
Fury at Bibi in her village, Ittanwali, seems based on hearsay that she confessed to insulting Islam. The only thing that’s clear is her troubles began with a dispute with fellow women farmhands who later accused her of blasphemy.
“If she returned I would beat her to death with anything I could get my hands on,” said Inayatullah, a 65-year-old man with fiery green eyes and a white beard. A group of people gathered around him, including a 14-year-old boy, agreed she should die.
Bibi and her family are the only Christians in the Ittanwali, a village of mud huts surrounded by sugarcane fields and orange orchards. Families burn cow dung for fuel and the place is mired in poverty and is a microcosm of the social and economic neglect that make Pakistan unstable.
Poor services discredit the government, which is deeply unpopular, and make people more susceptible to the preachings of the hardline clerics. Countrywide illiteracy rates of over 50 percent mean these extremists wield huge power over the people.
Sitting inside the mudbrick walls of the family’s housing compound where goats graze, Bibi’s sister-in-law Farhad says clerics began announcing that “Christians are dogs” after Bibi’s arrest. So far, their Muslim neighbours have not created any problems, but that could change given the charged atmosphere after Taseer’s death.
Either way, she says the family is trapped.
“Where can we run away to? Where can we flee? We have left it all to his (God‘s) mercy. He will do whatever is best for us,” said Farhad.
With the assassination of the governor, Christians know they have lost a rare defender.
Inside Lahore’s grand Sacred Heart cathedral, the archbishop of the eastern city, Lawrence Saldanha, asked worshipers at Sunday mass to pray for Taseer’s soul and asked God to give Christians the strength to practice their faith.
He told Reuters that Pakistan’s political leadership pandered to influential religious Islamist parties for support in the deeply conservative country, a common accusation.
“They try to get into politics by using religion in the wrong way, (a) very narrow interpretation of Islam,” he told Reuters.
That policy is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The deeply unpopular government needs all the support it can get. Frustrations are growing over rising inflation, power cuts and suicide bombings staged by Taliban militants.
Pakistan’s Christians can only hope Taseer’s killing will not encourage more violence against them.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.
Back in Ittanwali, cleric Maqsood Ahmed Masoomi suggested that if anyone in the village commits blasphemy, they may not make it to the courtroom.
“They should be killed on the spot,” he said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy