Defending the Persecuted: An Interview with ACLJ Legal Counsel

In recent weeks, IMB has explored the details of blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world here on the site and considered how they pose a threat to religious freedom and gospel proclamation in many countries. Restrictions such as these are only one of several ways Christians face sanctioned hostility toward their faith. As Jesus promised (John 15:18–19), his followers face real attack and stringent opposition in hotspots across the globe.

I recently had the opportunity to enrich our understanding of international persecution issues by speaking with an advocate for believers facing criminalization for their faith. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has worked for the past several decades to assist persecuted Christians with legal defense. The organization’s lawyers and activists labor to protect freedom of religion and freedom of speech by advocating for and representing clients in the United States and around the globe.

apostasy laws

When Conversion is a Crime: Apostasy Laws

I was able to speak with Saheryar Gill, senior litigation counsel with ACLJ, who specializes in international religious freedom issues and who oversees an affiliate office in Pakistan. He has spent years authoring reports on international religious freedom and representing clients in religious persecution cases. I asked Shaheryar to help us better understand the nature of persecution in Pakistan and surrounding areas and how Christians in the United States can help.

More Than Blasphemy Cases

Hope: What international cases are you currently overseeing?

Shaheryar: Much of my focus at this time is centered on our office in Pakistan. There we are not only assisting in blasphemy cases but also in a myriad of other litigations that highlight the ways Christians are under consistent persecution and discrimination. Our office on the ground is involved in defending Christians who are victims of simple assault, murder, rape, discrimination, and church attacks by mobs. Although Asia Bibi’s well-known blasphemy case is one of the most severe examples of what can happen to a Christian in Pakistan, there are plenty of other incidents where the penal code is used against believers.

A few years ago, a Christian teacher was accused of teaching Christianity in her history class and was placed on administrative leave. She was going to be fired from her job. Our Pakistani office started an investigation, however, and it came to light that the some Muslim colleagues were jealous of her standing and popularity and had fabricated the charges. The local ACLJ office pulled together affidavits from students, filed a complaint with the Department of Education, and, after several months, got a court order against the school to reinstate her. Sometimes the efficient, organized legal representation we offer is exactly what is needed to get justice for our clients.

The Implications of a Broad Penal Code

Hope: When you consider Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, how are they similar or dissimilar from other countries? What legal restraints do Christians living in Pakistan face?

Shaheryar: Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are extremely broad, including penalties for “uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of an object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person.” As of 1990, any insult in any way directed toward the prophet Muhammed carries a mandatory death sentence. Many other Muslim countries aren’t quite so severe.

One of the biggest problems for Christians and other minorities is that these laws do not clearly define what blasphemy is. Unfortunately, blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, it’s an arbitrary matter. This issue is not unique to Pakistan, however, but is a reality to contend with in many countries.

“One of the biggest problems for Christians and other minorities is that these laws do not clearly define what blasphemy is.”

Hope: As a lawyer who works with these kinds of cases, have you noticed any trends? Are countries growing more repressive, or is the situation in some countries getting better for Christian minorities? Do you have any examples?

Shaheryar: What you need to understand is that the vast majority of blasphemy cases filed are false claims. They are cases that were registered because someone had a disagreement or a fight, leaving the plaintiff with a personal vendetta against the defendant. In countries with blasphemy laws, it is extremely easy to retaliate in this way. I would venture to say that at least 90 percent of blasphemy cases in Pakistan, in particular, are false situations in which parties had other disputes. It is also important to note that Christians are not the only ones accused of breaking blasphemy laws in this region. Many Muslims are also accused in similar ways.

Facing Societal Hostility

Shaheryar: Another key factor to note for the region in which I work is that the law has taught society that there is only one punishment for blasphemy—death—and this has led to the common mentality that citizens can take the law into their own hands. Societal hostility and mob mentality are actually the primary dangers to Christians in Pakistan, not just the laws. This reality is illustrated in the instance a few years ago involving a Christian couple that worked at a brick kiln. The wife was cleaning one day and threw away papers that had belonged to her father-in-law. As an illiterate woman, she didn’t know what she was throwing away, but they were papers written in Arabic. After neighbors saw the partially burned documents, they spread the rumor that this couple had burned the Qur’an. Their village imam announced the accusation from his mosque, and a mob of thousands of people from surrounding villages soon descended on the couple, beat them, and threw them into their brick furnace while they were still alive.

“Societal hostility and mob mentality are actually the primary dangers to Christians in Pakistan, not just the laws.”

The one helpful development that came out of this atrocious situation is that the courts did take the situation seriously. Thirteen members of the mob were convicted for the crime. We are hopeful that this recent ruling will send a message to members of Pakistani society about the perils of taking the law into their own hands. Often perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions, which is what further serves to feed a vigilante mentality.

A Call to Awareness and Engagement

Hope: From your perspective, is international persecution on the radar of the evangelical church in America? What actions would you encourage Christians in the United States to take?

Shaheryar: The church in America may have somewhat limited awareness of persecution around the world because it is so multilayered. It’s not only legal codes that attempt to stifle Christian testimony, but societal regulations can hamper them just as much, if not more. Those in the stateside church feel limited in what they can do because they see the labyrinth of factors feeding each situation and don’t know where to start.

There are a lot of important actions concerned believers can take.

  • First, please pray for your persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
    They need your consistent, ongoing prayer support as they face growing uncertainty and discrimination.
  • Secondly, intentionally work to understand the ongoing issues.
    ACLJ publishes articles about the cases they are able to talk about publicly. Additionally, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) releases annual reports on the state of religious freedom violations in countries of particular concern (CPC). You can read the 2017 report here. Once you have gathered information, spread it on social media and in other circles where you have influence.
  • Next, sign petitions and write to your elected officials.
    The ACLJ petition started a few years ago in support of Asia Bibi received nearly six hundred thousand signatures and was one of the most impactful in the history of our organization. Massive petitions like this can make a real impact on government officials and serve to greatly encourage those facing years of legal battle, and in some cases, threat of execution. Letters to your elected representatives in Washington DC can serve to raise concerns in our own government about international persecution cases abroad.
  • Lastly, support the organizations that are on the ground fighting these cases.
    Our efforts through ACLJ are really making a tangible impact on the welfare of Christians around the world. Because of the legal assistance we have been able to offer, persecuted believers have had new avenues opened to them for dismissal of the cases against them and protection when they have been attacked and harassed.

For more information on apostasy and blasphemy laws see the infographics here and here.