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Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws Strike Again--and May Get Worse

Christian sentenced to death, nursing school shut down.

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 video—the 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 members—including 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 Afghanistan—a strategic position in the war on terror—has 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.

"Initially the Musharraf government showed some interest in amending the laws," she said. "The problem is he came up against stringent opposition from Islamist parties, so he backed down on his pledge to do something about them. The Musharraf government has allied with the Islamist parties and relies on the Islamist parties for its own legitimacy. Therefore, they have a lot of influence, even though they don't have that much popularity within Pakistan as a whole."

Pope Benedict XVI appealed to the Pakistani government on Friday, June 1, for a closer adherence to the principles of democracy, which, he said, "assure the freedom to express political opinions publicly in a variety of ways. In this way, national solidarity is enhanced, and peaceful ways of reconciling differences are encouraged."

Many other voices inside Pakistan and in the international community are also calling for reform or repeal of the blasphemy laws. But Musharraf has withdrawn his 2000 promise to amend the laws, and earlier this year, Pakistan's parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the punishment prescribed by blasphemy laws.

Jeremy Sewall, policy analyst for International Christian Concern (ICC), one organization pushing for reform in Pakistan, said that their exhortation "seems to have fallen on deaf ears."

Sewall also noted that Pakistan's parliament is considering a bill that would outlaw apostasy. Men who convert from Islam to any other religion would get the death penalty; women would receive life imprisonment.

"It seems that Pakistan is going to get worse before it gets better," Sewall said.

Still, Sewall believes pressure from the West can help. "The Pakistani government is trying to cooperate with the U.S. I think that we need to tell our representatives and our State Department and our President that human rights is an issue that we want them working on in Pakistan, and these are two examples of how human rights are not being protected," Sewall said.

Carley also sees a place for Americans to act. She said Americans should "agitate United States officials to do more, because Pakistan gets a lot of aid from the U.S. The feeling is that the U.S. could ask for more efforts [by Pakistan] to implement reforms than it is currently [asking]."

In addition to appealing to U.S. government officials, Sewall said, "Prayer is key. We need to be praying for changes of hearts in Pakistan."

Elizabeth Lawson is news intern for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles on Pakistan are available on our site.

Related news stories include:

Pope says Pakistan needs to strengthen democracy | Pope Benedict called on Pakistan on Friday to strengthen democracy and guarantee freedom of expression. (Reuters)
Man gets death for blasphemy after video trial | Defense counsel says he will appeal against decision (Daily Times, Pakistan)
Death sentence for blasphemy: HRCP to help Younis Masih appeal | The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said on Thursday that it would follow the case of Younis Masih, who had been sentenced to death on May 30 on charge of blasphemy. (Daily Times, Pakistan)
Christian in Pakistan sentenced to death | A Christian was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammed, and a human rights activist Friday urged Pakistan's president to spare his life. (Associated Press)
Pakistan shuts nursing college after blasphemy scare | A Pakistani nursing school has been shut and seven members of staff suspended after Islamist students protested over allegations blasphemy had been committed at the school, one of its officials said on Monday. (Reuters)
Pakistan school shut, blasphemy alleged | A nursing school was shut down and its Christian principal and four Christian students suspended after Muslim pupils accused unknown people of desecrating verses from the Quran, officials said Saturday. (Associated Press)

Articles and op-eds about Pakistan's blasphemy laws include:

Pakistan's blasphemy law: Words fail me | These cases offer an alarming glimpse into the machinery of state under Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Washington's partner in the "war on terror." (The Washington Post)
Pakistan's blasphemy law U-turn | Pakistan's human rights commission has reacted strongly after the country's military ruler gave up plans to change the way in which a controversial blasphemy law is implemented. (BBC News)
EU's hostility | Blasphemy laws promulgated by the state have been abused in such a manner that they are simply indefensible. They have become a tool for repression, discrimination and terrorisation not only of minorities but Muslims as well. (The International News, Pakistan)

AsiaNews.it and Compass Direct have more information on religious liberty and persecution in Pakistan.

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