Pakistan: Christian nurse beaten and accused of blasphemy by her colleagues

A screengrab from a January 28 video showing staff at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan beating a Christian nurse at the hospital and accusing her of blasphemy, an offence punishable by death in Pakistan.
A screengrab from a January 28 video showing staff at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan beating a Christian nurse at the hospital and accusing her of blasphemy, an offence punishable by death in Pakistan. © Twitter
10 min

A Christian nurse working at a maternity hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, was beaten by a mob of her fellow staff members on January 28, accusing her of blasphemy. Images of the incident were widely shared in the following days, as her attackers convinced police to register blasphemy charges against her – an offence punishable by death in Pakistan, where the state religion is Islam. This incident, just one among more than a thousand blasphemy cases registered since 1987, sheds light on the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and their role in inciting mob violence.

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This Twitter video posted on January 29, one day after the incident, shows staff at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan hitting Tabitha Nazir Gill, a senior staff nurse at the hospital. The nurse slapping her screams: “Go away from here”, while a voice in the background tells Nazir Gill to apologise.

“She was trying her best to save herself. But once they caught her, they beat her.”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to “Francis,” a local chaplain who knows Nazir Gill through his work and was present at the Karachi hospital shortly after the incident. His name has been changed to protect his personal security. 

Tabitha just said to a patient that she would pray for her, as she was going into labour and it was her first child. That is when everything started – the nurses who were there pounced on her. She was trying her best to save herself. She went from room to room, and locked herself in, but they climbed through the window in order to open the door. Once they opened the door, they asked the women to go in and beat her. They dragged her from the third to the ground floor on the stairs.”

In pursuit of Nazir Gill, a mob at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital supports a man hanging from a window in order to unlock a door in the hospital. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event.
In pursuit of Nazir Gill, a mob at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital supports a man hanging from a window in order to unlock a door in the hospital. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event. © Observers France 24

In pursuit of Nazir Gill, a mob at Sobhraj Maternity Hospital supports a man hanging from a window in order to unlock a door in the hospital. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event.

Surrounded by her attackers, at least two of whom are wearing burqas, Nazir Gill responds to her accusers by saying that she is Christian and that she has not spoken against Islam. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event.
Surrounded by her attackers, at least two of whom are wearing burqas, Nazir Gill responds to her accusers by saying that she is Christian and that she has not spoken against Islam. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event. © Observers France 24

Surrounded by her attackers, at least two of whom are wearing burqas, Nazir Gill responds to her accusers by saying that she is Christian and that she has not spoken against Islam. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event.

The staff accuse Nazir Gill of blasphemy and pressure her to write out an apology for “proclaiming her faith” by telling a patient that she would pray for her and ask Jesus Christ to heal her. Speaking to the camera, Nazir Gill says that “she didn’t say anything” and that “it’s their plan”. This video was circulating on social media in the days after the event.

Francis said the incident was “pre-planned”, and followed several months of tension between Nazir Gill and her Muslim colleagues, who had asked her to leave her job and transfer to another hospital. He said the tension was due to Nazir Gill’s faith: a Christian, she would tell patients that she would pray for their good health. Outside the hospital, she was also a gospel singer. 

The hospital is not isolated – it’s right in the heart of the surrounding area. So when she screamed, everybody came out into the streets, and people in the crowd also got worked up. Some went and got the police for help, and she was rescued and taken away. At the police station, they did not find anything that was blasphemous, so they sent her home.

But the next day, hospital staff and clerics went to the concerned police station, told the police that she spoke against the Prophet, and convinced them to file a FIR report [Editor’s note: a document prepared by the police when they receive information about a possible crime] with the 295-C blasphemy charge.

Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code states that “whoever by words, by visible representation or by any insinuation defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammed shall be punished with death, and also be liable to fine”. There is no sign in any of the videos of the incident that are circulating that Nazir Gill made comments about the Prophet.

An image of the FIR report accusing Mrs. Nazir Gill of blasphemy under section 295-C. The report, filed by a student of midwifery at the Sobhraj Hospital, alleges that Mrs. Nazir Gill said that the Prophet Muhammed was “not a prophet” and that she told a patient with stomach pains that “if you call upon Jesus, you’ll get well”.
An image of the FIR report accusing Mrs. Nazir Gill of blasphemy under section 295-C. The report, filed by a student of midwifery at the Sobhraj Hospital, alleges that Mrs. Nazir Gill said that the Prophet Muhammed was “not a prophet” and that she told a patient with stomach pains that “if you call upon Jesus, you’ll get well”. © Observers

Reviewing the contents of Nazir Gill’s FIR, Asad Jamal, a lawyer in Lahore, Pakistan, says that the contents of the FIR may be manipulated and that the complainant may have twisted facts – a common feature of many blasphemy accusations.

“People merely use blasphemy to persecute people and settle grudges”

Unfortunately, Nazir Gill’s case is not unheard of in Pakistan, where people – particularly religious minorities – are often targeted and persecuted under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws. 

Inherited from India’s British rulers when Pakistan became an independent nation following the 1947 partition of India, the laws were expanded during the 1980s by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. Clauses were added criminalising derogatory remarks against Islamic personages and blasphemy against the Prophet. These offences came with harsh penalties, including life imprisonment and death.

It is difficult to establish precise information on the number of blasphemy cases in Pakistan as there is limited available data, according to a 2016 Amnesty International report. However, according to figures compiled by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) and cited by Amnesty, at least 1,335 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1987 and 2016.

At least 40 people convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan are currently facing life sentences or the death penalty, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Anneqa Maria, a lawyer in Pakistan who defends those accused of blasphemy, says that blasphemy law is often misused as a tool to settle grudges:

“In my entire career of 14 years as a criminal lawyer, none of the blasphemy victims I represented have actually committed blasphemy. People merely use it to persecute people and settle grudges and scores. If you like someone’s daughter and the father is not willing to marry her to you, blasphemy is the best tool to get rid of him and his entire family. If you like someone’s property and he’s not willing to vacate it for you, you go for blasphemy. The list goes on and on: at workplaces, with conflicts of jealousy and social status, etc.

The best thing about blasphemy is that you don’t need to make an effort to prove it. You just have to shout it out, and the entire town or village will come to support and execute the person without evidence, like in Shama and Shahzad’s case [Editor’s note: a Christian couple who were beaten and burned to death by a mob in Pakistan’s Punjab province after being accused of desecrating the Quran]. They will even witness against the blasphemer in court without having ever witnessed anything. People are ready to kill, burn, or lynch a blasphemer at all costs even if they are not blasphemers."

Christians and other minorities particularly threatened by blasphemy-induced mob violence

Pakistan's population is 96% Muslim. Although most of the people accused of blasphemy in the country are Muslims, minorities like Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis (a persecuted sect of Islam that the government has legally declared “non-Muslim”), are disproportionately affected by these laws. Although they make up about 3.8% of the population, about 50% of reported blasphemy cases are filed against them. According to the NCJP, 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused since 1987.

Naveed Walter, president of the NGO Human Rights Focus Pakistan, says that Christians targeted by blasphemy laws are particularly vulnerable to violence:

“When a Christian is victimised, the whole family and community could also be attacked. In the past, there are examples when whole Christian communities have been set on fire, like in Gojra and in Joseph Colony, Lahore [Editor’s note: attacks in 2009 and 2013 respectively].

There are many other examples of violence against Christians and other minorities: workplace discrimination, abductions, forced conversion and forced marriages for female minors, ‘hate’ curriculum in schools, and assassinations."

Since the 1980s, nearly 80 people have been killed by individuals or angry mobs for alleged blasphemy, reported Al Jazeera.

“Reforms do not seem to be happening in the near future”

According to Maria, there are rarely any consequences for those who make false blasphemy accusations or exert violence against so-called blasphemers. And although critics say blasphemy laws are subject to rampant misuse, past efforts at reform have failed due to pressure from religious parties and fundamentalist groups. On February 3, a Pakistan senate panel rejected a bill seeking to protect minorities against religiously-motivated violence. 

Walter explains that blasphemy law misuse is a particularly sensitive issue, as those who support reform may be considered anti-Islam and alleged to be themselves blasphemous:

“If anyone raises their voice in favour of victims, the fanatics allege that they are a blasphemer. One example is the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was assassinated for helping Asia Bibi [Editor’s note: a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy and was acquitted in 2018 in a 'historic ruling'].

Right now, religion is considered supreme to law, and the Pakistan constitution also defines Islam as the state religion. Reforms do not seem to be happening in the near future until the mindset of society changes towards equality, tolerance, peace and equal status of citizens."

However, some have openly condemned the attack against Nazir Gill, including one of her Muslim colleagues, who posted a video responding to the incident calling on people to stop lying and to put religion aside in the medical profession in order to serve humanity.

Nazir Gill and her family are currently in hiding, having been taken to safe haven by social workers and Christian leaders, according to our local sources. But even if the blasphemy charges are dropped, she and her family will still remain in danger, says Maria.

“If you are labeled as a blasphemer, your life will be in constant danger even if you are acquitted of charges. So people mostly leave the country, or relocate themselves and keep relocating the rest of their lives. Those who don’t do this die in the hands of religious extremists."