Pakistani Prelate Calls Blasphemy Law "Unjust"

Norm Used for Persecution and Personal Vengeance

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LAHORE, Pakistan, JULY 18, 2004 ( The president of the Pakistani bishops’ conference says the country’s blasphemy law is unjust and must be abolished, though he isn’t optimistic about government promises to revise the statute.

The blasphemy law — sections 295 B and C of the Pakistani Penal Code — was introduced in 1986. Section 295-B refers to offenses against the Koran, punishable even by life imprisonment. Section 295-C establishes the death penalty or life imprisonment for «all those who with words or writings, visible gestures or representations, with direct or indirect insinuations, insult the holy name of the Prophet.»

The law, which makes possible the imprisonment of an alleged offender by the simple oral accusation of any citizen, favors its use for personal vengeance, critics say. Also, Muslim militants manipulate the statute to persecute Christians or those who disagree with them, the critics add.

The government has elaborated an «amendment of the penal law» to modify the «crime of honor,» the blasphemy law, and the Hudud Decree — introduced in 1979 and based on the Koran, with punishments such as stoning for adultery, gambling, and the use of alcohol. On the basis of the amendment, the «crime of honor,» which legitimates the stoning of a woman presumed adulterous, would be declared murder.

«I am not very optimistic about promises to revise the blasphemy law,» said Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, president of the bishops’ conference. «There is strong opposition from extremists groups. What is more, any amendment must be examined and passed by the Council of Islam.»

«We Christians wait and hope, but we are not expecting much,» the archbishop told the Vatican agency Fides.

«The law is unjust and it should be abolished,» he added. «The government seems inclined to do so, but it has to take into account the people and, particularly, the radical Muslim groups who threaten to react.»

«In the meantime, Christians are victims of this unjust law,» said Archbishop Saldanha. «At the moment, there are 80 Christians detained on charges of blasphemy — a high number if we think that Pakistan’s Christians make up little more than 1% of the population.»

Last Tuesday, Ejaz ul Haq, federal Minister of Religious Affairs, said that the blasphemy law would continue to provide the death penalty as punishment and that modifications would be limited to procedures and the application of the norm.

Nevertheless, the government minister admitted that the law has been abused over the past 18 years. In fact, from 1927 to 1986, only seven cases of blasphemy were recorded, while from 1986 until the present, there have been more than 4,000. According to the new modification, however, whoever makes false accusations will also be punished with death.

A report published recently by the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission states that no other law based on religious principles has had such devastating consequences on the population as the blasphemy law.

The survey «reveals and denounces the violation of rights of minorities in Pakistan,» the archbishop said. «The authors want the whole country and the international community to realize what is going on.»

The 150-page report illustrates the condition of workers’ restrictions, low wages, exploitation of women and the list of violations of women’s rights and of freedom of religion and expression.

The episcopal commission calls for the abolition of laws which discriminate against religious minorities and the establishment of an independent commission with judiciary powers to accept claims and reports from minority groups.

Pakistan has about 143 million people; 75% are Sunni Muslims and 20% are Shiites. Christians represent 2% of the population, and Catholics number 1.2 million.

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