PAKISTAN is being urged to set up a commission to investigate
the "tragic consequences" of its blasphemy law and "suggest a way
out of this difficult and embarrassing situation". The call came in
a communiqué issued on 19 September by the World Council of
Churches after a series of public hearings in Geneva.
The laws date from 1860, when Pakistan was part of British-ruled
India, and originally protected all faiths. They were amended in
1986 as part of an Islamification campaign by the then military
ruler of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, and are now being used as "a
tool to settle personal scores through attacks on religious
minorities", the communiqué says, and have "fostered a climate of
religiously motivated violence and persecution in several parts of
The law says that the death penalty can be imposed on anybody
who "by words, either spoken or written, or by visible
representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation,
directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet
Muhammad". And anybody who defiles the Qur'an can be imprisoned for
The Pakistan newspaper Dawn said on Thursday that 15
people were charged with blasphemy prior to the change in the law;
and 1274 have faced charges between 1986 and 2010.
A current case involves a teenage girl, Rimsha Masih, who faces
the death penalty after being accused of burning pages of the
Qur'an (News, 7,
She had been held in a high-security prison since her arrest on
16 August, until being granted bail on a 500,000 Pakistan rupee
(£3270) surety on 7 September. Rimsha and her family are currently
in hiding. Other Christians from their village near Mehrabadi,
Islamabad, are reported to have fled the area to avoid
On Monday, lawyers for the accuser, Hammad Malik, asked the
court to revoke bail after police asked for more time to prepare
their case. A senior civil judge, Amir Aziz, reserved judgment
until 21 September, when the hearing resumes.
On 1 September, an imam from Rimsha's village, Mohammed Khalid
Chishti, who has campaigned for Christians to be moved from the
area, was arrested and accused of planting evidence in the case
(News, 7, 14 September).
The week's public hearings, which coincided with the 21st
Session of the UN Human Rights Council, brought together
Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, including the Bishop of Raiwind
and the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Most Revd Samuel
Azariah; and the secretary of the Federal Board of Wafaqul Madares
(Islamic Schools), Moulana Qari Hanif Jalandhari.
In their communiqué, the participants say: "We believe that the
role of religion is to create a climate of peace, stability,
tolerance, reconciliation, and respect for human dignity and the
human rights of all people, and not to promote conditions that
create intolerance and hatred."
They say that they heard "examples of the alarming trend of
misuse of the Blasphemy Law and its impacts. Article 20 of the
Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of religion as a
fundamental right, stating that 'every citizen shall have the right
to profess, practise, and propagate his religion', and Article 36
stipulates the protection of minorities in that 'the State shall
safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities'.
"However, these constitutional guarantees are being negated.
Pakistan society has been experiencing militarization and
politicization of religion, which has led to abuse of religion for
political gains, which in turn results in violations of fundamental
human rights of minority religions in Pakistan.
"Religious minorities in the country have been living in a state
of fear and terror as the Blasphemy Law has been used to register
false cases against religious minorities. The increasing trend of
the misuse of the Blasphemy Law intensifies communal hatred,
religious intolerance, and persecution against religious
They describe the blasphemy law as "vaguely formulated and
arbitrarily enforced", and say that it has "become one of the most
stringent laws in the country".
They continue: "There are also serious flaws in the
presumptions, intent, and the content of the Blasphemy Law. Since
the mandatory death sentence was introduced, many innocent people
have lost their lives.
"The common experience of abusing and misusing the Blasphemy Law
in Pakistan has led to physical violence, damage, destruction of
properties, and loss of life among innocent people over the years.
In recent times, the number of victims has been increasing.
"Many victims of the Blasphemy Law have faced displacement or
been forced to live in hiding. Charges brought against individuals
under the Blasphemy Law were malicious, stemming from personal
enmity, often with the motivation to have people imprisoned to gain
advantage in business or land disputes."
They call on the government of Pakistan to "take realistic and
solid steps" to stop abuse of the blasphemy laws, and say that
"tinkering with procedural amendments" has "failed to mitigate
extremely sad consequences of a law that is inherently susceptible
The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association,
Wilson Chowdhry, said that the current blasphemy laws were "a
recipe for injustice, corruption, and repression", and that "just
the threat of a blasphemy accusation is a potent weapon".