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Aasia Bibi must be very special. She is only one out of an estimated 4.75 billion people who live in countries that have what the Pew Forum terms "high restrictions on religion." Yet in November, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to her case and in January called on the government of Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws under which she was sentenced to die. The pope pointed to the assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer, who had asked Pakistan's president to free Aasia Bibi. Blasphemy laws, the pope said, served primarily as a pretext for violence against religious minorities.

He was proved right this week as Shabaz Bhatti, the government's minister whose job it is to represent those religious minorities, was assassinated on his drive to work. Leaflets at the scene, reportedly left by Bhatti's killers, said he was targeted because he was "a Christian infidel" who was working to reform the blasphemy law.

In the West, 21st-century Christians find it hard to understand how Pakistan can have blasphemy laws. But blasphemy laws were long an integral part of Christendom's own legal framework.

James Nayler was England's most famous blasphemer. He led a splinter group within George Fox's rapidly growing Quaker movement at a time when it was, in the words of historian Meic Pearse, "fearlessly provocative." The Quakers' "madcap sectarianism" threatened "established order, hierarchy, and property" and provoked harsh responses.

In 1655, in an apparent reenactment of Jesus' triumphal entry, Nayler rode into Bristol, England, on horseback while his followers sang "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth." After a 13-day trial, prosecutors asked for the death penalty, but the Puritan Parliament voted it down 96 to 82. Instead, they ...

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In the Magazine

March 2011

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