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Minorities worry as Pakistan sharpens blasphemy law

Stiffer punishments spark fears the already controversial law will be used to target religious minorities more

In this file photo, demonstrators gather at a police station that was set on fire after thousands of people mobbed it demanding that officers hand over a man accused of blasphemy for burning a Quran, in Charsadda, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Nov. 29, 2021

In this file photo, demonstrators gather at a police station that was set on fire after thousands of people mobbed it demanding that officers hand over a man accused of blasphemy for burning a Quran, in Charsadda, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Nov. 29, 2021. (Photo:AFP)

Published: January 19, 2023 07:47 AM GMT

Updated: January 19, 2023 10:02 AM GMT

Pakistan’s parliament has amended its blasphemy law making it more stringent, sparking alarm among Christian leaders and rights groups who fear it could stoke rights abuses and be used to target religious minorities.

The National Assembly on Jan. 17 passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, increasing punishment for insulting the Prophet’s companions, wives, and family members to 10 years along with a fine of 1 million rupees (US$4,424).

The amendment “is an unfortunate” development, said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice. “One wonders why it was needed,” he said.

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Jacob said the politicians who pushed for it have ignored the existing blasphemy law, which stipulates death for convicts, and the mob violence associated with it.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are sensitive as mere allegations have led to extrajudicial killings and mob violence.

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — a prominent critic who tried to reform the law — was killed by his bodyguard in 2011.

Christian groups have been demanding the repeal of the blasphemy law, saying Muslims misuse it by making false allegations to win even petty quarrels with Christians.

“Our demands have been ignored yet again,” by this amendment, Jacob said while addressing a Jan. 17 gathering of activists and lawyers in Lahore.

“Sadly there is no history of any debates on such laws in our assemblies,” the Catholic leader said noting that parliament passed the law unanimously without any debate.

“Resolutions that violate religious freedom are passed without any thought,” he said regretting that lawmakers do not even invite experts to study new laws and their implications.

Human rights lawyer, Nadeem Anthony, said the amendment is aimed at targeting Shias and Ahmadis, two Islamic sects considered non-Muslim in Sunni-majority Pakistan.

“The amendment will encourage religion-based hatred and violence. We reject religion-based discrimination. The lawmakers should instead focus on addressing economic and political issues facing the country,” Anthony said.

Shia Muslims constitute about 20 percent of the 230 million people of Pakistan.

The country has witnessed an increase in violence against Shias since the Islamization of the country in the 1980s under former military ruler Zia-ul-Haq.

In 1984, he promulgated an ordinance prohibiting Ahmadiyya people from indulging in "anti-Islamic activities" by restricting them from referring to themselves as Muslims or preaching their beliefs.

Sunni groups often demand the arrest of Shia people on charges of insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s companions in annual Muharram processions that commemorate the seventh-century massacre of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Husayn and his family and friends.

The amended law, which covers insults against the Prophet's companions and family members, can help provide a deterrent against Shia people, experts observe.

Muslim political leader Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Jamaat-e-Islami, says a stringent law was necessary.

He said before the amendment the punishment for insulting the wives, family and companions of the Prophet was only three years.

“The punishment for insulting a parliament member is five years, but the punishment for insulting sacred personalities is three years. This is an insult in itself,” Chitrali said.

Pakistan is passing through a political crisis after its elected prime minister Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.

The country is facing a general election this year as the term of its parliament ends on Aug. 13, unless dissolved earlier. A general election should happen within 60 days following the dissolution of the National Assembly, according to existing laws.

Observers say while the government of current Prime Minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif pushes populist moves, former prime minister Khan and other opposition parties cannot stop them as they are afraid of upsetting Sunni voters.

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