While it can often feel like free speech is under serious attack in the United States as we are subject to censorship at the hands of private companies that we use to communicate with our friends, family members, and followers, some Christians live in countries where they can face criminal charges simply for sharing content that blasphemes against the Islamic religion.
In one recent case in Pakistan, however, a Christian woman has been arrested, jailed, and charged with simply receiving a blasphemous text message through WhatsApp which she allegedly forward.
International Christian Concern (ICC) reports that Shagufta Rafiq was reportedly taken from her home in a heavily-armed police raid on July 29.
She and her whole family, including her children, were seized by police, who also took devices and personal possessions.
While Shagufta’s husband and children were later released, she remains in jail and has been charged under 295-A and 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
If convicted, she faces life imprisonment.
“It was July 29 when dozens of policemen and members of law enforcement agencies forcibly entered our house,” Shagufta’s husband, Rafiq Masih, told ICC. “They harassed my family and took possession of our phones, laptops, and other valuables. The police were fully loaded with guns and ordered us not to move and keep our hands up. They arrested Shagufta, my two sons, and my daughter without any prior information or arrest warrants.”
The distressed husband explained that Shagufta was not the author of the reportedly blasphemous post, and was not aware of it. But she’s been accused of forwarding it, which she denies.
Her family, however, has had to move to another city to escape the death threats they’ve since received.
Masih said that they weren’t even able to take anything from their home due to the “fanatics” in their neighborhood.
“In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are widespread and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Accusations are highly inflammatory and have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders, and mass protests,” ICC explains.
Religious minorities are often the recipient of accusations under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and ICC says that between 1987 and 2017, over half of those accused of violating the laws were religious minorities.
Christians are sadly well represented among those accused of blasphemy. While they make up just 1.6% of the Pakistani population, 15.5% of those who face allegations under these laws are Christian.
“We here at International Christian Concern are very concerned by Shagufta’s arrest and the blasphemy allegation that has been leveled against her,” said ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark.
“No one should face the prospect of life imprisonment for simply receiving a text message on WhatsApp. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must not be allowed to be misused in this case. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minority communities in Pakistan.”
Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman who now lives in Canada, was charged with blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death by hanging after engaging in an altercation with neighbors. As the first woman to receive such a sentence for a blasphemous offence, her case sparked an international outcry.
Her sentence was later overturned by the nation’s Supreme Court, but the violent backlash that resulted drove her to leave her country. She told the BBC last year that she hopes she can return one day.
During her time in prison, knowing that the international community was praying for her gave her strength.
“I found out from my husband that the whole world was praying for me. And that even the Pope had prayed for me. That made me happy. And I found out the whole world was praying for my misery to end,” she said. “That made me feel that their prayers would definitely free me.”
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