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Pakistan’s abuse of blasphemy laws decried

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WASHINGTON (BP)–Incessant persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, a country perpetually recognized for its poor track record in upholding religious autonomy, is generating increased concern from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

A recent news release from the USCIRF expressed outrage over the Islamic country’s abuse of its blasphemy laws, which implement punishments, including death, to any person who defiles the name of Muhammad.

“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are inherently arbitrary, and they de facto restrict freedom of speech and other freedoms guaranteed by international human rights norms,” said Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer in the written statement. “These insidious laws lend themselves to misuse and abuse, resulting frequently in severe violations of freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan.”

Younis Masih, a 29-year-old Christian Pakistani, was a victim of his country’s manipulation of the blasphemy laws. According to the USCIRF news release, Masih asked that a noisy group of Muslims remain quiet around his home in September 2005 after his nephew had died and his family was in mourning.

Angered by Masih’s request, the group of Muslims accused him of insulting the Islamic religion, which signifies blasphemy under Pakistani law, the news release stated. The situation sparked repeated attacks on other homes in the area that belonged to Christians, and Masih and his wife were beaten during the attacks. Masih has been imprisoned for nearly two years and was sentenced to death May 30.

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The USCIRF cited Masih’s case as one of many in which due process is ignored. Pakistani laws passed in October 2004 declare that only a senior police official can bring an indictment against a Pakistani accused of blasphemy. However, the USCIRF news release said this requirement is not consistently followed.

“In fact, the case against Younis Masih demonstrates that the officially required new procedures are not even heeded,” Gaer said.

As a result, a blasphemy indictment can be placed on an individual without any evidence or proof of intent, USCIRF says. There is no penalty for bringing a false allegation, meaning that extremists often use the blasphemy laws to threaten religious minorities such as Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus.

In addition, trials for Pakistanis accused of violating the blasphemy laws are often chaotic. Records show the accused are attacked and sometimes killed by vigilantes while waiting for trial. Pakistanis who receive an acquittal at trial often are forced to flee the country because of persistent threats from vigilantes.

Pakistan received international backing for its blasphemy laws in March by successfully presenting a resolution at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva that supports drastic measures to “halt the defamation of religions.”

The USCIRF news release indicated that although these measures are implemented in the name of religious tolerance, they “routinely criminalize and prosecute what is deemed —- often capriciously by local officials in countries where such laws exist —- to be ‘offensive’ or ‘unacceptable’ speech about a particular religion.”

Concern about religious persecution in Pakistan does not end with the blasphemy laws. A current draft bill before Pakistan’s National Assembly would enforce the death penalty for individuals accused of apostasy — that is, converting from Islam to any other religion. The bill states that testimony from two or more adults is sufficient evidence to impose the death sentence.

“This proposed bill would violate human rights standards because it would criminalize an internationally protected right,” Gaer said. “Every effort should be made by the government of Pakistan to ensure that such repressive legislation is not passed.”

The USCIRF has requested that the U.S. government urge Pakistan to instigate policy changes to the blasphemy laws, such as requiring an investigation of death threats and full due process during trial. Such measures by the Pakistani government would eliminate current loopholes and place the country on a path to ultimately dismantling the blasphemy laws.

In addition, the USCIRF is encouraging the U.S. government to press Pakistan to withdraw the draft bill on apostasy and implement more stringent efforts to eliminate Islamic extremism in the country.

“The commission calls on the U.S. government forcefully to raise all of these serious religious freedom concerns promptly with the government of Pakistan,” Gaer said. “These repressive measures exacerbate religious tensions rather than advance freedom of religion, and have no place in a country that claims to respect rights.”
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Jennifer Thurman, a senior at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., is a Baptist Press intern in Washington, D.C.

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