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Pakistan Urged to Probe Abuse of Blasphemy Law

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By Jaya Ramachandran *

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is urging the Pakistani government to "take realistic and solid steps to stop abuse of the blasphemy law that are causing massive human rights violations".

The call to action emerged from three-day public international hearing on the Misuse of blasphemy law and religious minorities in Pakistan, organized by the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) from September 17 to 19 in Geneva.

The hearing was attended by about 100 participants from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, including 23 representatives of Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious groups and civil society and human rights organizations from different parts of Pakistan.

The participants asked the Pakistani government to "constitute a competent Inquiry Commission immediately to look into the tragic consequences of the blasphemy law and suggest a way out of this difficult and embarrassing situation."

The participants "affirmed the need for the civil society to help the commission in its deliberations, monitor its progress and keep the communities informed." A communiqué released on September 19 says: "Tinkering with procedural amendments has not delivered; it has failed to mitigate extremely sad consequences of a law that is inherently susceptible to abuse."

Bishop Samuel Azariah, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, hopes that the Pakistani government will consider repealing the controversial clause in the Pakistan Penal Code which, he says, invokes misuse of the blasphemy law.

A recent case in point – one among many – is that of Rimsha Masih, an eleven year old girl accused of blasphemy. Azariah said: "Churches in Pakistan, media and civil society in the country have raised their voices against this case. This is evidently a proof of the misuse of the law."

Rimsha Masih was arrested on August 16 on a charge of blasphemy. Recently she was released and taken to an undisclosed location due to security threats.

For Bishop Azariah, cases like Rimsha's create a sense of fear and insecurity. "The religious minorities and even some sects of Muslims have been affected by the misuse of the blasphemy law. A majority of the cases have proved to be false, which has disturbed the fabric of trust in our society," he said.

Azariah also expressed appreciation for the participation of Pakistani churches and representatives of Muslim and Hindu religious communities in the Geneva hearing, and for the WCC's support to persecuted minorities in the country irrespective of their religious affiliations.

He said: "The CCIA consultation has provided us with an opportunity to advance the debate on the issues of the dignity and rights of religious minorities in our country. I hope our voices are noted by the higher authorities in Pakistan."

Vaguely formulated

The blasphemy law is part of the Penal Code of Pakistan. The WCC communiqué argues that the law, as amended by the then Pakistan President General Zia Ul Haq in the 1980s, is "vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary" and "has become one of the most stringent laws in the country".

Though the law itself provides only a vague definition of blasphemy, blasphemy carries a mandatory death sentence in some cases, specifically Section 295C, says the communiqué, adding that the Blasphemy Law has been used in recent years to victimize minority religious communities in the country. The participants further regretted the fact that a large number of Muslims have also suffered under and been vulnerable to this law.

The WCC also finds serious flaws in the presumptions, intent and the content of the Blasphemy Law. Since the mandatory death sentence was introduced, as a result of a Federal Shariat Court interpretation to Section 295C in 1990, many innocent people have lost their lives.

The common experience of abusing and misusing the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan has led to physical violence, damage, destruction of properties and loss of life among innocent people over the years. In recent times, the number of victims has been increasing, says the WCC.

It adds: "Many victims of the Blasphemy Law have faced displacement or been forced to live in hiding. Charges brought against individuals under the Blasphemy Law were malicious, stemming from personal enmity, often with the motivation to have people imprisoned to gain advantage in business or land disputes."

The public hearing discussed various action plans for global advocacy proposed by the participants as outcomes of their working group discussions. "The CCIA will take a lead in identifying the priorities from among the proposals and evolve strategies to facilitate advocacy through the WCC constituency and the international community at various levels in order to address negative impacts of the blasphemy law and violations of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan," said Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA.

Unfulfilled assurances

The communiqué recalls the assurances given to the religious minorities by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of the Pakistani nation, that "all citizens are equal regardless of belief". It also draws attention to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

The communiqué says: "Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of religion as a fundamental right stating that 'every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion' and article 36 stipulates the protection of minorities in that 'the State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities'."

However, these constitutional guarantees are being negated. The communiqué states tersely: "Pakistan society has been experiencing militarization and politicization of religion, which has led to abuse of religion for political gains, which in turn results in violations of fundamental human rights of minority religions in Pakistan.

"Religious minorities in the country have been living in a state of fear and terror as the Blasphemy Law has been used to register false cases against religious minorities. The increasing trend of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law intensifies communal hatred, religious intolerance and persecution against religious minorities in Pakistan. The law is often being used as a tool to settle personal scores through attacks on religious minorities. These incidents have fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence and persecution in several parts of the country."

I.A. Rehman, veteran human rights activist and director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "No state should take away the right of its citizens to debate a law that affects them gravely. Therefore, there is a growing need of dialogue on the blasphemy law and its negative impacts on religious minorities in Pakistan."

"If we are not able to discuss the blasphemy law and its impact on people, especially the non-Muslims, I would call it a big disadvantage of our society," added Rehman.

"When the state and constitution make preference on the basis of religion, they end up violating the rights of their citizens. The blasphemy law is one among other laws that form a whole system of discrimination against religious minorities in Pakistan," said Peter Jacob, director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Church in Pakistan, in a panel organised at a side event on the 21st session of the in a side event at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

"The discrimination we find in the constitution and state policies translates into extremism and general intolerance in the society," added Jacob. He noted that the civil society in Pakistan has reached a consensus on the misuse of the blasphemy law, and because of this, a repeal of the law should be considered.

In the same panel, Dr Moulana Uzair Albazi of Muhammad Musa Albazi University in Lahore stressed the importance of the role of religious leaders in helping to curb the misuse of the blasphemy law. "The representatives of all faiths should have the opportunity to scrutinize the procedures of blasphemy cases to make sure that these laws are not used to victimize people," he said.

“Pakistan belongs to all its citizens, may they be Muslims, Christians, Hindus or others. Laws should not be misused to violate rights of the people,” added Albazi.

The Rev. Kjell Magne Bondevik, moderator of the CCIA and the former prime minister of Norway, who chaired the panel discussion, said that "the international community needs to pay more attention to curb the increasing trend of religious intolerance and misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan”.

He also added that he personally met with the prime minister of Pakistan on behalf of the CCIA last year to express concerns about the increasing violations of the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.

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