By Father Emmanuel Yousaf, National Director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, Pakistan 

Over more than 45 years as a priest in Pakistan, I have struggled on behalf of our community against persecution and discrimination. When Christians working in the fields and brick kilns have not received their due portion of wheat or rice, I have approached the landlords and kiln owners asking them to give just wages and put an end to this injustice. When I discovered that boys and girls in my parish were not receiving the education they deserve, I set up schools and hostels. I have worked in rural communities in which Christians were not respected due to their faith, and were banned from shops, restaurants and cafes; in such places, our faithful were not allowed to touch glasses or other eating implements used by the majority community. And we have supported girls from minority faith backgrounds who are particularly at risk. These are children who, despite the fact that they are only minors, are kidnapped, forced to convert and marry – and they also suffer rape and other abuse. The plight of these girls shows that living as a religious minority in Pakistan is becoming increasingly problematic.

And, although there have been some improvements, amendments to the blasphemy laws in the 1980s are exploited by extremists who misuse the legislation to terrorise minority faith communities. These poor and marginalised families live in fear of being accused of blasphemy, a crime which is punishable by execution or life imprisonment. I have been involved in many cases, not least that of Asia Bibi, who was on death row for nearly a decade before justice finally won through.

The case of Salamat Masih and his two uncles will stay with me forever. Salamat was accused of writing blasphemous comments about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The two uncles were also accused. Never mind that Salamat was only 12 and illiterate, never mind that the offending script was calligraphy and used religious language normally only used by Muslim clergy. In spite of this, the three were charged, but before anything could happen Salamat and his uncles were shot by three men brandishing automatic rifles. One uncle, Manzoor Masih, died of his injuries; the other uncle, Rehmat Masih, and Salamat himself were severely injured, but survived by the grace of God. Worse was to come when Salamat and his surviving uncle were sentenced to death. I worked ceaselessly with the family lawyer to overturn the sentence. Eventually, we succeeded. Sadly, the judge who acquitted them also was murdered in cold blood by the extremists. In the decades since then, we have worked hard to help rebuild the lives of Salamat, his surviving uncle, their relatives and 40 families from their village who fled on the night that the accusations were first made. I am grateful to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its help to families in dire straits and its support for our advocacy for those falsely accused.

I am also grateful to ACN for its work in the field of religious liberty. Indeed, this Religious Freedom in the World Report could not be more timely. The more the world knows about acts of religious hatred and neglect, the more the world will be able to do something about them. In a complex and hurting world, the best safeguard against knee-jerk responses as well as ineffectual virtue-signalling is clear and comprehensive reportage, complemented by insightful and balanced analysis. This is what ACN’s report is committed to providing. It follows cases of religious freedom abuses long after the TV cameras have gone and the story has moved on. The charity is to be commended for its thoroughgoing defence of religious freedom – a foundational human right which is no less important today than in years gone by.