Blasphemy laws endangering lives of Christians in Pakistan

Published 03 January 2006  |  
Islamabad – The controversial blasphemy laws are being blamed for the rise in sectarian violence in the nation, putting the lives of minority communities at risk, Christians living in Pakistan feel.

On November 12, Pakistan witnessed the worst anti–Christian attack in recent years when a mob of 2000 Muslims in Sangla Hill, provoked by the inflammatory words of local Muslim clerics, attacked and gutted three churches, a convent school, a nun’s hostel and several Christian homes.

The Muslims reportedly went on a frenzy when the news of a Christian who had allegedly burnt pages of a Koran spread like wildfire.

The November 12 attacks sent shockwaves through the country's Christian minority, leaving them with a sense of insecurity. And once again, blasphemy laws have been blamed for worsening sectarian relations in this country, where Christians, Hindus and other minorities make up only 3 percent of the population, while an overwhelming 97 percent is Muslim.

Under the penal code, desecration of the Koran is punishable by life imprisonment while any insult to the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death.
Many Christians feel that the laws are being misused to justify attacks on them and settle “personal scores.”

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, visited Pakistan in December, urging Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, to review the law.

"My response is one of great shock, great dismay that this can still go on," Archbishop Williams said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). "It is part of the history of the abuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which I think is widely recognized in this country as a major problem, which this country has to tackle."

"The problem is not so much about the idea of a law against blasphemy," he said, "as about a law whose penalty is so severe and whose practice gives so much scope for allowing people to settle private scores."

And, this, some residents of Sangla Hill say, is what happened in November. Since then, 88 people have been charged with ransacking and burning churches and property, and 3 police officials were suspended for negligence.

Yousaf Masih, a local Christian, was identified as the desecrator of the Koran, but some investigations have revealed that the allegations were invented by a man who owed Mr. Masih a gambling debt. Mr. Masih is now under arrest at an undisclosed location.

Rev. Tajammal Pervez, whose Presbyterian church was also gutted in the carnage, feels that local authorities, including police officials were insensitive to their concerns. Several calls to police officials seeking security for his church and residence were unheeded, he said.

Though the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Sangla Hill was cordial for generations, the violence has changed everything, he said.

On December 4, the National Commission for Justice and Peace convened a National Consultation meeting on "Ending Religious Intolerance." The conference in Lahore brought together religious and civil society leaders from around the country, including representatives of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, the Christian Study Centre, the Commission for Peace and Human Development and the Centre of Legal Assistance and Settlement.

The consultation resulted in a joint resolution that decried the recent anti–Christian violence and condemned the Pakistani authorities of having "done nothing to defuse the tension," and of "failing to repair the situation."

The delegates at the consultation also univocally urged the Pakistan Government to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, and to be bold and repeal the notorious blasphemy laws that are the cause of so much inter–religious strife.

The delegates specifically highlighted the widespread abuse of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws in place since 1986, claiming that blasphemy cases are often opened in local courts as a pretext to settle personal scores and Masih has been “clearly victimized due to his religion.”

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