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Rights group demands repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law

It has never been proved if a member of the minority groups ever truly committed blasphemy, says Human Rights Focus Pakistan
Pakistani Christian Perveen Bibi weeps outside the torched St. John's Church in Jaranwala on the outskirts of Faisalabad on Thursday, a day after an attack by Muslim men following the spread of allegations that Christians had desecrated the Quran

Pakistani Christian Perveen Bibi weeps outside the torched St. John's Church in Jaranwala on the outskirts of Faisalabad on Thursday, a day after an attack by Muslim men following the spread of allegations that Christians had desecrated the Quran. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Published: August 21, 2023 08:22 AM GMT
Updated: August 21, 2023 08:59 AM GMT

A human rights group has called for the repel of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law to prevent Islamist attacks against minorities following some of the worst violence targeting Christians the country has seen.

The nation’s leaders should repeal the blasphemy laws and take action to change the mindset of Islamists and the general public “if they are serious and sincere about making Pakistan a true democratic and progressive country,” said Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP).

“Otherwise, the same incidents would continue,” he said.

Walter made the appeal in a press release on Aug. 20 as HRFP published a fact-finding report on a blasphemy riot in Jaranwala, a Christian neighborhood in Faisalabad district of Punjab province on Aug. 16.

The group said its team investigations found that the violence affected some 20,000 Christians, forcing about 10,000 people to flee their homes in fear.

The HRFP report said 21 churches and about 400 Christian homes were attacked. Some 19 churches and 89 houses were completely burnt in arson attacks while two churches and some prayer rooms and community halls were damaged.

The report was based on interviews with victims, families, local residents, Church leaders, journalists, police officials, local authorities, political workers and different stake holders, the press release said. 

The fact-finding team talked to more than 150 victims, their family members and Church leaders.

Besides vandalism, the attackers looted valuables from Christian households and abused people, triggering fear among the community who are still unable to return home, the report stated.

The HRFP report alleged that Shaukat Masih, a Christian and assistant commissioner in Jaranwala was facing “facing biased behavior” because of ties to Raja Amir and Rocky Masih, the two Christians accused of desecrating a Quran that allegedly triggered the riot.

Shaukat Masih was suspended over the issue. He fled with family before an attack on his house, HRFP added.

The trouble started after local Muslims accused the two Christians of blasphemy by desecrating a Quran and filed a police complaint against them on Aug. 16.

Despite the police arresting the Christians, local clerics and hardline groups stirred up Muslim anger calling on them to stage protests. A video on social media showed a cleric make such as call using a mosque’s loudspeaker, adding that it is “better to die if you don't care about Islam.”

HRFP president, Walter, said that there were many blasphemy cases against minorities but “it has never been proved if someone ever truly committed blasphemy” but no accuser has been brought to justice for making false allegations.

He cited the case of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 but who was released in 2018 after the Supreme Court acquitted her.

Her accusers have never been questioned, Walter said, adding that blasphemy allegations have led to the brutal deaths of innocent people.

Pakistan’s Penal Code criminalizes blasphemy. Anyone convicted of desecrating the Quran faces life imprisonment, and the death penalty for anyone convicted of defaming the Prophet Mohammad.

In 2021, a Sri Lankan manager of a factory was beaten and burnt alive by a Muslim mob, and in 2014 a couple was burnt alive over blasphemy allegations.

Churches and Christian neighborhoods have been repeatedly attacked, churches destroyed and Christians killed over fabricated blasphemy allegations, but the perpetrators enjoyed impunity, Walter said.

There is a difference in pattern of blasphemy attacks on Muslims and non-Muslims in Pakistan, he said.

When an individual member of a minority is accused then the whole community has to suffer while an accused Muslim is the only individual who gets hurt, he said.

“The accusers should be held accountable and questioned from the beginning. If they can’t prove their allegations then they should face justice,” he added.

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