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Internet restrictions a further blow to church mission in Pakistan

Catholic media organizations are worried tough new law could be used to silence the country’s Christian minority.

Internet restrictions a further blow to church mission in Pakistan

Pakistani employees of an online marketplace company Kaymu at work in Karachi in this file photo.  The Pakistani government has a new cyber security law that gives authorities special powers 'needed to protect citizens.' (Photo by AFP) 

A controversial cyber security law that allows Pakistan’s government to widen police online activity may cut off one of the last evangelization avenues left in the Muslim-majority nation.

Catholic communication experts claim that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, passed in August, could be used as another way to silence Christian voices.

"The internet is an important tool to proclaim the word of God and faith formation in the Islamic republic. Many priests use Facebook to share their activities in restive regions. Restricted internet means restriction on evangelization," Father Qaiser Feroz, director of the Workshop Audio Visual Education studio, the national Catholic communication center, told ucanews.com.

"The bill is ambiguous and could be misused," the priest said. "We support the ban on immoral sites and content against religious belief but there should be no restriction on information related to democracy or development."

The Pakistani government said that the new powers are needed to protect citizens against the threat of terrorism, according to a Reuters report

The new law envisages 14-year jail terms for cyber terrorism and seven-year stints for campaigning against innocent people and spreading hate on the basis of ethnicity, religion or sect. Three-year terms were also added for "spoofing" — where hackers mimic a person’s online identity.

The church and human rights activists were concerned about vague definitions in the law which could allow current Christian internet activity to be deemed illegal.

While Muslims can easily preach or propagate their religious beliefs, non-Muslims are restricted from proselytizing. Christians who have been accused of overstepping their restrictions in the past met with severe consequences.

In 2012, a dozen armed Muslims stormed the Grace Ministry Church in Faisalabad, seriously wounding two Christians. The raid was sparked by charges that church was trying to covert locals.

Christian internet activity has increasingly been the source of confrontation. Local Facebook users complaining that videos posted by Lahore-based Catholic TV constituted anti-state activity, a station employee said on condition of anonymity

In another incident, the Punjab government's prosecution department issued a legal notice on Aug. 31 to TV actor, Hamza Ali Abbasi for spreading "false rumors" about hundreds of children being kidnapped from Lahore via Facebook posts.

The actor said he was only quoting media reports and that he was being targeted for being a supporter of the opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

The internet is one of the few outlets left for Pakistan’s Christian media after Catholic TV channels were forced off air. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority closed 11 "illegal" Christian TV channels on Sept. 23. Pakistan's first Catholic radio station, Media for Jesus also exists exclusively online.

Jasber Ashiq, director of Catholic TV Pakistan, has already had to deal with government restrictions. "Now we stream our programs live on Facebook and recorded programs are posted on YouTube. But we had to look for alternate sites when the government imposed a three-year ban on YouTube [which was lifted in January]", said Ashiq.

Bishop of Faisalabad Joseph Arshad, who is head of the Commission for Social Communications, said that internet activity must proceed with caution. "We have to be careful not to hurt the other community [Muslims]," he said.

The latest developments came after Freedom House, a Washington DC-based research firm, listed Pakistan among the 10 worst countries for internet freedom in its Freedom on the Net 2016 report.

The report cited a case in which anti-terrorism courts sentenced a man to 13 years in prison for liking an internet post against the beliefs of Sunni Muslims.

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