Pakistan to consider blasphemy law reforms amid worsening violence

by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 6/08/15, 12:27 pm

Lawmakers in Pakistan are considering reforms to the country’s blasphemy laws that could help curb persecution against Christians and other minorities. The proposed reforms come amid ongoing persecution that ranges from discrimination to physical violence and false accusations of blasphemy that can land people in prison for life, or even incur a death sentence. And interreligious tension is worsening.

The situation is so bad for Christians and other minorities that the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) once again called for majority-Muslim Pakistan to be officially designated a country of particular concern (CPC), following a recent visit to the country.

In a co-written commentary in The National Interest, USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy law as particularly egregious and said “religious minorities bear the brunt of it.” Currently, almost 40 people are serving life in prison or sit on death row for blasphemy convictions, the most in the world, according to Swett.

“We remain convinced that the State Department should designate Pakistan a ‘country of particular concern’ for its continued record of failure in protecting religious freedom,” Swett wrote. “Such a designation would elevate the discussion between Washington and Islamabad by signaling serious concern about current conditions.”

International Christian Concern supported the call for CPC designation and said blasphemy law reform is necessary.

Blasphemy laws often snare the mentally unstable, including the mentally disabled as well as those with drug addictions, said to William Stark, ICC’s regional manager for Southeast Asia. In recent weeks, there were two instances of mentally unstable men being accused, attacked, and then arrested under the blasphemy law.

In Lahore last month, Humayyun Faisal was accused of burning pages of a Quran. A mob called for him to be burned alive. But the police intervened and arrested him, although they didn’t prevent rioting, World Watch Monitor (WWM) reported.

“Among the crowd, one tall man was repeatedly inciting everyone to bring out all Christian women, men, children, and elderly, and set them on fire,” Sharafat Randhawa, a witness to the riots, told WWM.

Then on June 4 in Mirpur Khas, Yaqoob Bashir, a mentally disabled Christian man, accidentally dropped cigarette ash on a booklet of Quranic verses, according to ICC. After word spread, a group of Muslim clerics and extremists broke into his home, beat him, and rioted in the streets against Christians. Police arrested and charged Bashir and are investigating the incident.

His mother told ICC her son is innocent.

“He does not know the sensitivity of religious feelings or sacredness of the holy books,” she said. “He did not burn the pages of the Islamic literature intentionally. It was just an accident due to the ash from his cigarette. He is mentally unstable and therefore should be forgiven.”

According to the Express Tribune, three-pronged reform of the blasphemy law may be coming to help curb abuses like vigilantism. The Tribune said a draft bill would soon be introduced to Parliament that would include harsh penalties for false blasphemy accusations, require proof of intention to blaspheme, and make it clear only the state can carry out punishment. Stark said not everyone is convinced such reform will happen.

But if true, Stark said the reforms would be great for religious minorities in Pakistan.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo. Follow her on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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