Pakistan Criticized for Blasphemy Law Allowing Death Penalty

Harsh Law Is Open to Abuse, Says Aid to the Church in Need

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ROME, OCT. 29, 2001 ( Sunday´s attack on a Catholic church in Pakistan, which left 18 dead, highlighted the fragile situation of religious minorities in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The “2001 Report on Religious Liberty in the World,” published by Aid to the Church in Need, an association of pontifical right, begins its chapter on Pakistan stating that there “continues to be, at the institutional level, numerous discriminations of a religious nature.”

“The current president, General Pervez Musharraf, head of a junta of military men and civilians that came to power following a coup d´etat on October 12, 1999, has reintroduced Islam as the state religion,” the report stated.

Once again, therefore, a distinction is made in Pakistan between Muslim citizens and “infidels,” guaranteeing “privileges to the former that are not granted to religious minorities,” the report said.

In the electoral system adopted in 1985, citizens elect their own political representatives according to their own religious affiliation. Of the total 217 seats in the National Assembly, 4 are allocated to Christian representatives, 4 to Hindus, and 2 to other minorities.

Given the system, Christians boycotted the administrative elections held last Dec. 31 and March 21, the Italian newspaper Avvenire reported.

During 2000, numerous protests were organized throughout the national territory, and organizations like the Justitia et Pax Commission, Caritas-Pakistan and the National Christian Action Forum collected signatures protesting the electoral law, Eglises d´Asie reported on June 16, 2000.

The most troubling issue in regard to religious liberty is the blasphemy law, according to which anyone accused by a witness of insulting Mohammed or Islam can be arrested and condemned to death.

The government considered amending the law, introducing more stringent controls, since it is easy for several people to give false testimony against an individual, accusing him of blasphemy. The local police station is responsible for recording such accusations. President Musharraf had suggested that a higher authority be established to verify accusations before proceeding with an arrest.

However, in statements published May 19, 2000, by Human Rights Without Frontiers, the Pakistani president explained that the government opted to abandon this plan, “given that experts and the people share unanimous positions,” and in order to avoid people lynching the accused during investigations.

“No one can change the blasphemy law,” the president said during an interview with the Financial Times last March 6.

The Ecumenical Council of Churches sent a letter to the government of Pakistan requesting the immediate revocation of this law that, in practice, serves as a pretext “to discriminate, even violently, against non-Muslim minorities present in the country.”

According to Christian Evangelical Fellowship on Jan. 3, there were seven Christians in prison, accused of violating the blasphemy law. The most tragic case is that of Ayub Masih, who was accused in 1996 and condemned to death in April 1998.

“Tortured on various occasions, he is in very poor health, relegated to an isolated cell, in part because he has endured several murder attempts,” Aid to the Church in Need reported.

Shafik Masih was sentenced to eight years of forced labor. He has been in prison since 1998, condemned in October 1999 for “slightly offending Islam.”

In fact, L´Eglise Dans Le Monde reported in the first quarter of 2001 that, according to his defense lawyer, Masih did not offend Islam. He was simply accused following a quarrel with a neighbor over electricity. The neighbor turned the issue into a religious question.

Rasheed and Saleem Masih, two Christian brothers from the province of Punjab, were sentenced on May 11, 2000, to 35 years in prison, accused of blasphemy by a Muslim ice-cream vendor.

The vendor did not want to serve them ice-cream in the same glasses he used for Muslims, according to Aid to the Church in Need.

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