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Christians in Pakistan fear future

16 May 2007

by Bill Bowder

CHRISTIANS in Pakistan face new threats from proposals to make conversion a capital offence and from Islamic militants.

In two towns in the North West Frontier Province, tensions increased last week after unsigned, hand-written letters gave Christians until yesterday to convert to Islam.

The Barnabas Fund reported that the letters had been delivered on 7 May to churches and Christian homes in Charsadda, where there are around 500 Christians, and in Mardan. The Bishop of Peshawar, the Rt Revd Mano Rumalshah, in whose dioceses the towns lie, told the Fund that he was gravely concerned about the ultimatum.

The threat comes at a time when forces in the country are attempting to toughen up legislation against conversion. A draft apostasy Bill, the Apostasy Act 2006, was tabled by the Islamic alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). It would make the death sentence mandatory for Muslim men found guilty of leaving Islam. Women would face life imprisonment.

Under the Bill, adopted in a first reading by Pakistan’s National Assembly, an apostate would have up to 30 days to renounce his or her conversion. The death sentence would apply if a person converted more than three times.

The Bishop in the Arabian Gulf, the Rt Revd Azad Marshall, said on Saturday that he thought the Bill would not become law. But it was important the West knew about it because it showed the way Christians were under pressure.

“It shows the very strong feelings that Muslims have about Muslims’ becoming Christians, but even then we have to live with them and we have to be salt and light,” he said.

The National Assembly has also rejected minority-ethnic pressure to reform Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws.

Mr Bhandara, a member of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and a Parsi, had tabled amendments that would have reduced blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad from a capital offence to a five-year prison sentence and a fine. His amendments would have extended the law to blasphemy against other religions as well.

The existing law had “created an atmosphere of bigotry and intolerance”, APMA said in a statement. But a government minister led the rejection of his amendment, saying that the Bill hurt Islamic feelings. “This is not a secular state but the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” the minister said, as reported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Many Christians believe that the law, which allows an accusation of blasphemy to be brought by a single witness, has been used to settle land disputes.

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