Pakistani Bishops Push to End Anti-Blasphemy Law

Say Statute Is Still Abused

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LAHORE, Pakistan, JULY 8, 2005 ( Pakistan’s government is not observing amendments made to the anti-blasphemy law last year, reports the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

In conjunction with several religious and human rights organizations, including the Commission for Peace and Human Development — a group comprising Christians and Muslims — and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, the bishops of Pakistan raised the question of respect for the rule of law, reporting cases of false accusations of blasphemy and violence against Christians and non-Christians.

For example, the Karachi police recently arrested an elderly Muslim street sweeper, Yousaf Masih, accused of burning sheets of paper on which verses of the Koran were printed. The illiterate worker said he was simply burning newspapers and other papers as part of his job.

Later, in the city of Nowshera, not far from Peshawar, in the northwest frontier province, a Muslim mob set fire to the Lamba Vera Hindu temple and torched Christian and Hindu homes. Terrified families fled the area and are now homeless.

Recently, the Pakistani police raided a bookstore of the Daughters of St. Paul in Saddar, near Karachi, and confiscated books and other material for sale.

The action was ignited by an article in the national Urdu daily Nawa-I-Waqt newspaper that said the nuns were selling books and CDs with content that insulted the prophet Mohammed.

Concerned about this new wave of anti-minority violence, Pakistan’s bishops intend to raise the problem with the government authorities, according to the Vatican news agency Fides.

In a message to the Holy See’s missionary agency, the Justice and Peace Commission called on the government to adopt measures to stop the violence and reiterated its request for the withdrawal of the blasphemy law.

Amendments not honored

The commission also condemned acts of violence by Muslim extremists and appealed for the immediate release of Yousaf Masih. According to the amendments approved in 2004, an investigation must be held before an arrest can be made.

In fact, last year the Pakistani Parliament approved a law to reduce the scope of the restrictive blasphemy laws. The amendment to the law means that police officials will have to investigate accusations of blasphemy, to ensure that they are well founded, before presenting criminal charges.

The blasphemy law refers to two sections of the Pakistani Code of Criminal Procedure which condemn offenses against the Koran or the prophet’s name. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

However, the law is also used against political adversaries or personal enemies, by Muslim fundamentalist or for personal revenge.

According to the commission, since 1988 some 650 people have been falsely accused and arrested under the blasphemy law enforced by Pakistan. Moreover, over the same period, some 20 people have been killed, accused of the same offense.

At present, there are 80 Christians in prison accused of blasphemy.

Muslims constitute 97% of the country’s 155 million inhabitants.

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