Friday, September 7, 2012

Bible burning and blasphemy?

Have you heard about the group of angry Christians gathered around the house of a 14-year old Muslim girl with Down’s syndrome, threatening to kill her, burn her house and the houses of other Muslims in the area? And, that this occurred after a neighbor reported the girl was seen burning pages of the Bible. In this region where Christians are in the majority, hundreds of Muslims have fled their homes in fear. About 300 Muslims set up a camp outside of the city, from where they were later ejected and the make-shift mosque they had constructed was burned.

Has anyone seen this story in the news? Of course not, because none of the above happened. Well, not exactly. The story is accurate if we switch the Muslim and Christian references. The truth is that Rimsha Masih, the 14-year old girl with Down’s syndrome was jailed in Islamabad, Pakistan and hundreds of Christians fled their homes in fear. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, the girl faces a possible death sentence if found guilty of insulting Islam or the Quran. [1] Christians who fled are without food in many cases, except for some assistance provided by relief organizations. Zahid Pervez, whose house has been looted of its few valuable possessions, said "We'll never go back. We have young children. How can we go back? They won't even let us say our prayers there." A neighbor reported that the girl and her mother were beaten by a mob that formed outside their house.

And yet, in the USA, Christians are labeled as intolerant, bigoted and hateful. In Pakistan, a council of Muslim clerics and scholars, to their credit, joined hands with the Pakistan Interfaith League - which includes Christians, Sikhs and other religions - to call for justice for the girl. [2]

Sunday, in a plot twist, a Muslim cleric was arrested and charged with planting pages of the Quran in the girl’s shopping bag. Her lawyer plans to request a dismissal of the charges, though he still agrees the blasphemy law is a good law. Today, the girl was granted bail – one million rupees, about $10,500 - which was paid by a humanitarian organization. However, she’s not out of the woods yet, as people accused of blasphemy who are not convicted often face vigilante justice. A Pakistani man in this situation in July was dragged from a police station and beaten to death before his body was set on fire. And, two politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were murdered last year. [3]

What is the difference between this response to insult and that which is advocated in the Bible by Jesus and His apostles? Jesus instructed us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). The Apostle Paul stated: “when we are reviled, we bless” (1 Cor. 4:9) and “see that no one repays another with evil for evil” (1 Thess. 5:15). The Bible informs us that those who know God have love for others and “the one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Bible instructs believers in Jesus to live in peace with others (Matt. 5:9, Rom. 12:18, 1 Cor. 7:15).

When Bibles are burned, angry mobs of violent Christians do not form, nor should they. All religious beliefs must be tolerated as long as the adherents do not harm others. As followers of Jesus, we denounce any violence or oppression in the name of religion and call for freedom to openly discuss issues of faith, without fear of retribution. Let’s have a civil discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Christians do not hate those who persecute our brothers and sisters; rather, we love and pray for them. Religious beliefs must not be coerced by force, but demonstrated through love and open dialogue.

[1] The NY Daily News India, “Father of Pakistani Christian girl appeals to President Asif Ali Zardari”, 28 Aug 2012.
[2] Saeed Shah in Islamabad, The Guardian, “Pakistani Muslim leaders support Christian girl accused of blasphemy,” 27 Aug 2012.
[3] Taha Siddiqui, Christian Science Monitor, “As Pakistani Christian girl is granted bail, critics call for blasphemy law reform”, 7 Sept 2012.