Changes in Blasphemy Law Fail to Calm Pakistan's Christians

Abuses Have Victimized Non-Muslims

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, NOV. 4, 2004 ( Catholic, Protestant and juridical observers in Pakistan described the recent changes to the country’s Blasphemy Law as inadequate and useless.

The amendments adopted by the National Assembly on Oct. 26 place limits on the abuses of the law, but the criticisms reported by AsiaNews call for its rejection.

Under the 1986 Blasphemy Law, those found guilty of insulting the Koran face up to life imprisonment. Those who, «with words or writings, gestures or visible representations, direct or indirect insinuations, insult the holy name of the Prophet,» face the death penalty.

The disposition, which allows the imprisonment of the accused based on simple oral statements made by any citizen, favors its use as a means of personal vengeance. Muslim militants manipulate the law to persecute Christians or anyone who does not agree with them.

Since the norm came into force, dozens of Christians have been killed for «defaming» Islam. According to data of the Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace, from 1987 to 2004 there have been 560 people officially accused of blasphemy. Thirty still await trial.

Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, president of the commission, recently told Fides that «there are more than 80 Christians imprisoned accused of blasphemy — a large number if we think that they are just over 1% of the Pakistani population.»

Of Pakistan’s 143 million inhabitants, about 75% are Sunni Muslims, and 20% are Shiites. Catholics number 1.2 million.

General Pervez Musharraf’s government proposed a modification of the law, but the change was to be submitted and approved by the Council of Islamic Ideology. The draft «Amendment of the Criminal Law» sought to modify the crime of honor, the blasphemy law, and the Hudood ordinances, based on the Koran.

Now, under the amended law, to avoid abuses, only senior police officers will be able to investigate blasphemy cases. More importantly, they will have to file criminal charges only after looking into allegations and not before, as was the case till now. The previous normative provided for immediate arrest.

Archbishop Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the of the justice-and-peace commission, said the changes were disappointing. «Similar changes had been tabled in 1992 and discarded as insufficient,» they explained in a statement.

Joseph Francis of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement, also condemned the proposed changes.

«Senior police officers will never do the inquiry personally but will forward it to subordinates or staff officers, and these will send the inquiry to further lower-ranking officials and the complications will continue,» Francis warned.

He added that inquiry procedures were not observed in the past. «How can we accept a new procedure when the existing one was not followed?» he asked. «The only solution is to repeal these laws.»

Manzoor Batti, a Protestant and founding president of Teach Awareness Through Skill and Knowledge, also condemned the law.

«If a Muslim accuses anyone of blasphemy, no one will dare challenge his words,» Batti said. «The charge itself is a death sentence. In this country we have many such examples.»

The federal minister of religious affairs himself, Ejaz ul Haq, admitted last summer that there had been an abuse of the law over the past 18 years, In fact, from 1927 to 1986, there were seven cases of blasphemy registered, while from 1986 to the present, 4,000 have been reported.

The Pakistani National Assembly also amended the law on honor killing and the Hudood ordinances. Inspired by the Koran, they punish behavior deemed incompatible with Islam, such as adultery, gambling and drinking alcohol. Whipping and stoning are the usual means to mete out justice.

The changes include harsher verdicts for honor killings. Prison sentences can range from seven years to life — and even the death penalty.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan considers the amendments inadequate. «Women will continue to be murdered and their killers walk away scot-free,» the commission said in a statement.

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