Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws Strike Again--and May Get Worse
Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws have been used against Christians in two recent incidents, prompting a louder by groups who say the laws are abusive.
Younis Masih, a 29-year-old Christian from Lahore, was sentenced to death on Wednesday, May 30, for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Muhammad in September 2005.
On September 9, 2005, a neighbor of Masih's demanded that Christians gathering in their town observe Muslim and not Christian rituals, precipitating an argument between him and Masih, according to Masih's lawyer. The resident accused Masih of blasphemy two days later, and a lower-ranking officer investigated and arrested him.
Masih's lawyer based his defense on the requirements of the law itself. In 2004, after increasing pleas for the amendment of blasphemy laws, Pakistan's national assembly made an effort to appease rights groups by permitting only senior police officers to investigate blasphemy cases, a measure which had not been implemented in Masih's case.
Masih was not at the trial. He remained at Kol Lakhpat jail and appeared in the courtroom on videothe first video blasphemy trial in Pakistan. Masih's lawyer plans to appeal the death sentence, he told AsiaNews.it, a Catholic news service.
In an incident later that week, Pakistani authorities cited blasphemy laws in suspending Christian faculty and students, and closing a nursing school in the capital city of Islamabad. On June 2, Muslim nursing students complained that Christian nursing students had defaced Qur'an verses about etiquette that had been posted above a water cooler. Accounts conflict about how the verses were defaced and whether any such thing happened. The Daily Times reports that the Pakistan Institute of Medical Science closed the school for 15 days, filed a blasphemy suit against unidentified persons, and suspended five of its Christian staff membersincluding the school's principal, who told the Associated Press that she was on leave at the time of the incident.
Responding to rumors of blasphemy, 30 female students from Jamia Hafsa, a fundamentalist madrassa in Islamabad, along with 10 male students from Lal Masjid, another Muslim institution, gathered in front of the nurses' dormitory. According the to the Daily Times, they threatened to take over the dormitory. They argued with police but were not permitted to enter the building.
Pakistan is a federal republic and has a legal system based both on English common law and on Islamic Shari'ah law. The country, which borders Afghanistana strategic position in the war on terrorhas aligned with the United States against terrorist organizations. Events such as these blasphemy cases accentuate nationwide divisions about Islamic fundamentalism.
On Tuesday, June 5, in his address in Prague, George Bush spoke broadly of the United States' efforts with its allies in the war on terror. "The United States is also using its influence to urge valued partners like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to move toward freedom," he said. "The United States will continue to press nations like these to open up their political systems and give greater voice to their people. Inevitably, this creates tension. As our relationships with South Korea and Taiwan during the Cold War prove, America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time."
Patricia Carley, associate director for policy at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, says that such tensions have had great influence on efforts to reform Pakistan's blasphemy laws.