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Pakistan’s sword of Damocles

New Year protests show how difficult the country’s blasphemy laws will be to change

Christians rallying in Pakistan, demanding an end to violence against the Christian minority (File photo) Christians rallying in Pakistan, demanding an end to violence against the Christian minority (File photo)
  • ucanews.com reporter, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • January 4, 2011
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The New Year has begun in Pakistan with a stark reminder to Christians of the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of the country’s draconian Blasphemy Laws.

The mass rallies by Muslim religious political parties on New Year’s Eve demonstrate more than words can the strength of resistance that will face any attempt to reform or abolish the laws which have led to Christians being burnt alive, their houses set ablaze and their properties looted.

The scale of Friday’s protest was shocking. Shops remained closed, public transport was suspended as crowds gathered across the country. Imams gave a passionate defense of blasphemy laws in their Friday sermons while protestors shouted slogans in streets against Muslim politicians who supported amendments that would abolish the mandatory death penalty.

The angry reaction came at the end of a dismal year in which 10 Christians and six Hindus were accused of blasphemy. They all faced legal execution for their "crimes" but it never came to that as the mob intervened - as it has done so many times before - to make a mockery of the legal system. Two of the accused were gunned down outside the court in Faisalabad, Punjab province, while two are still at large.

Meanwhile the high profile case of the Catholic, Asia Bibi, the first women condemned to death for insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, rumbles on with the hapless Bibi in prison awaiting her day in Lahore High Court. But many fear she won’t make it to her court appearance alive.  An imam of the largest mosque in Peshawar has offered a reward of half a million rupees (US$5,800) to “anyone who kills Asia." Authorities finally adopted extra security measures for Bibi as the Catholic and Protestant Bishops demanded Bibi’s release at the Christmas tea party at Government House in Lahore.

Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore took up the cry, urging prayers for peace in his January 1 address to the congregation at Sacred Heart Cathedral. “We are very worried due to difficult circumstances. We pray for protection against every assault and danger and hope for a better year," he said.

Such sentiments (and the many expressed in the past) have done little to reach the hearts of promoters of the law and its harsh penalties, who oppose the most minimal reforms to the law that was beefed up by the late General Ziaul Haq.

The New Year’s Eve action came after Tehrik Khatam e Nabuwat (Movement for the finality of prophet hood) and other religious parties called a strike in wake of a private member’s bill submitted late November in the National Assembly Secretariat. It called for the abolition of the mandatory death penalty and life sentence in some situations.

The proposed bill also calls for rationalising the concept of premeditation or intent and punishment for “anyone making false or frivolous accusation” as well as for any advocacy of religious hatred.

This bill is one of the few bright spots in a bleak landscape, so much so that  Peter Jacob, executive secretary NCJP, believes it could be a "breakthrough."

In his latest article entitled Laws that insult reason and justice published on Dec 10 and 11 in the Daily Times, Jacob concludes that the future of the bill holds the key not only to the environment of religious freedom for all citizens but also to the future of democratic development.

Archbishop Saldanha, who bemoans how "New Year was spoiled" by the mass action, has also urged changes in the man-made law, emphasizing how little they have to do with the teachings of Islam.

“These are not inscribed in Qur’an but the religious parties are using it for their own agenda The definition of the term ‘blasphemy’ is vague and leads to misinterpretations," he told ucanews.com.

Jacob is right that the private member’s bill has brought rare hope of changing these laws, if not ending them, this year. But even the most extreme optimist cannot but have their doubts, especially if they are a student of history. Pakistan is one of few Muslim nations with such strict blasphemy laws. What’s more, the issue has always been politicized and now it dominates every religious sensibility. The bill then becomes a major test for the ruling party which, before coming to power, on several occasions promised to abolish the laws .

That now leaves two questions. Whether the will to abolish them is there and whether the current government even has the power to do so.  The present government is weakened after losing its major coalition partners and is unlikely to be able or willing to take tough decisions. A simple executive order or court ruling is unlikely to carry the day.

There are still some ways the situation may improve. Engaging top Muslim leadership might be a solution. The concept of the Ummah (one Muslim nation) carries more meaning in a Pakistani context than patriotism. Perhaps a fatwa on abolishing these laws could put an end to years of tyranny and bloodshed where political and judicial action has failed.

There are some signs of hope. The Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan’s top constitutional advisory body on Islamic injunctions, has already suggested certain procedural amendments against misuse of the laws.

Pakistani Christians would get their biggest New Year’s gift if these suggestions are realized. But that’s a big "if." In a recent discussion, some Muslim university students dismissed the suggestion that the laws needed urgent reform. To them, a blasphemy trial was just like any other murder trial and so did not need special attention.

This, perhaps unwittingly, displays what to many Christians is the ultimate understanding of the laws as they stand. A blasphemy allegation is usually a death sentence of the accused and so can end like a murder charge. The likelihood of escape from that sentence diminishes when the accused is a poor villager from a minority community.

Even if the law is neither abolished nor reformed, Pakistani Christians desperately need some sort of legal advantage to help them fight such dangerous  allegations when they are made. They deserve justice from court, religion and society. The big question remains whether they will find such help in 2011?

PA12687.1635
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