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Intolerance hampers blasphemy debate

Group urges more collaboration among moderates

Intolerance hampers blasphemy debate
A priest lights a candle at a memorial service for slain federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti reporter, Lahore

February 25, 2013

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Greater collaboration between moderates in Christian and Muslim communities is key to curbing sectarian strife and resisting a climate of intolerance fueled by politically motivated religious laws, according to members of a local interfaith group.

The Interactive Resource Center based in Lahore uses alternative methods for raising contentious issues in an environment prone to suppressing or prosecuting religious dialogue, said its Muslim director Mohammad Waseem.

“Intolerance and blasphemy laws are the biggest obstacles in bringing the two religious communities together,” he said.

“That’s the reason we are trying to find alternative means like drama to address them, since we cannot openly debate them in society.”

Waseem’s comments came during a panel discussion for the first annual Diversity Talk series at Loyola Hall in Lahore, organized by the group Interfaith Youth in Action (IYA).

Despite such forums, little has changed in the application of blasphemy laws, according to one Presbyterian minister.

“I stopped attending such seminars years ago. I just got fed up after realizing that speaking in halls and enjoying buffets together makes no difference”, said Reverend Majid Abel of the Naulakha Presbyterian Church.

“Both pastors and clerics have failed in taking the essence of interfaith harmony to the grassroots. The mercury keeps rising,” he added.

A report issued last year by the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies stated that between 1990 and last year, 52 people – most of them Muslims – were the victims of extrajudicial killings after being accused of blasphemy. 

The laws date back to the British colonial era but were revised and expanded under Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977-1988. During that time prosecutions for blasphemy rapidly increased. 

President Asif Ali Zardari has acknowledged that the law has been abused and has called on religious leaders of various faiths to work together to make sure it is judiciously applied.

“We are aware of the misuse of the blasphemy law against minorities by vested interests. We will not permit the misuse of any law against vulnerable groups,” he said during the National Conference on Interfaith Harmony on Friday.

Yet little has been done to amend the controversial legislation, and attempts to address the issue have led to more violence.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic member of the National Assembly and the federal minister for minority affairs, was assassinated in 2011 over his vocal criticism of the blasphemy law.

But IYA director Shahid Rehmat, said interfaith initiatives still serve a purpose, particularly for the Christian minority.

“Mostly it is about friendship and building relationships to save those who are persecuted for their faith,” he said. However he did concede that such efforts have had only limited practical success so far.

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