COMMENT: Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

By Benedict Rogers

(Reposted from one year ago. Extended version available here)

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights campaigner with Christian Solidarity Worldwide based in London. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.


St. Patricks Cathedral, Karachi

On 11 August 1947, Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah spelled out his vision for the new nation. Although Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims, Jinnah envisaged a country based on religious freedom. He said: “You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting with this fundamental principle, that we are all citizens and citizens of one state.”

Half a century later, Pakistan is very far from Jinnah’s vision. The rise of militant Islamism has put the country at the epicentre of global terrorism, and given it one of the world’s worst records of intolerance towards religious minorities. In recent years, violence against Christians, Hindus and others has increased, the abduction, gang-rape and forced marriage of minority women and young girls has become more widespread, and letters threatening Christian communities to convert to Islam more regular. But at the heart of this climate of intolerance is a set of laws which are so poorly defined and so widely abused that they have become a weapon of hatred, used by Muslims against each other to settle personal scores, and against minorities to intimidate and persecute. These are Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.

Introduced by Pakistan’s dictator General Zia ul-Haq in 1982 and 1986, the blasphemy laws amended existing legislation first enacted by the British in colonial India. In 1862, Britain created legislation to protect religious communities in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim clashes. Section 295A, on “offences concerning religion”, was introduced into the Indian Penal Code, which Pakistan adopted upon its creation in 1947. From 1862 until 1982, only one known case was ever registered under Section 295 A.

From 1947 until 1985, Muslims and Christians in Pakistan lived in relative harmony. However, General Zia’s decision in 1982 to add Section 295 B to the Pakistan Penal Code, and Section 295 C in 1986, and the Shari’a court decision to impose the death penalty in the case of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed in 1992, changed all that. Section 295 B refers to the desecration of the Qu’ran, and reads:

“Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qu’ran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”

Section 295 C, blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, reads:

“Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punishable by death, and shall also be liable to fine.”

In the case of 295 B, there is at least a provision for intent, in the reference to whoever “wilfully” defiles the Qu’ran, although in practice this provision is rendered irrelevant, a point illustrated by cases such as an illiterate cleaner who burned a newspaper thinking it was rubbish, without realising it contained quotations from the Qu’ran. Section 295 C, which carries the death penalty, does not include any reference to intent, and is so vaguely worded that it is wide open to abuse. What do terms such as “visible representation”, “imputation”, “innuendo” and “insinuation” actually mean, especially if they are interpreted “directly or indirectly”, and without any question of intent?

Poor definitions of blasphemy and no proof of intent are compounded by the absence of standards of evidence. The testimony of one person is all that is required to secure the arrest of an individual for blasphemy. The police can charge a person, and put the accused in jail. When it comes to trial, no further evidence is required beyond the testimony of one person bringing the accusation. It is safe to say that almost every single blasphemy case is completely fabricated.

Indeed, it gets worse. Upon cross-examination, the person making the accusation may be asked to repeat exactly what the accused said that was deemed to be blasphemous. In response, the person making the accusation can simply refuse to repeat the alleged remarks – on the grounds that if they did, they themselves would be committing blasphemy. In some cases the credibility of witnesses is stretched beyond imagination. In a blasphemy trial in Sargodha, for example, the defence counsel showed that the prosecution witness was unreliable – but the judge ruled that because he had a beard of a certain length, and was a Muslim, his evidence was acceptable and the accused was found guilty.

Regularly, mobs of Muslims, often led by Mullahs, crowd into the courtroom, shouting threats at the judge if he does not rule in their favour. Defence lawyers receive death threats for taking on blasphemy cases. Mobs gather outside the courtroom, and physically threaten the lawyers as they leave. As one lawyer told Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “no blasphemy case has ever been conducted on a fair trial basis.”

In addition to the threats faced by lawyers, judges and human rights activists, the defendants themselves are at grave risk – before, during and even after their trials. In prison, awaiting trial, those accused of blasphemy face the danger of being killed. Some members of the police and the judiciary are themselves extremists involved in condoning or perpetrating violence against people accused of blasphemy. In 2000, Acting Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Justice Mian Nazir Akhtar, said that no one had authority to pardon blasphemy and that anyone accused of blasphemy should be killed on the spot, as a religious obligation. On 24 May 2004 at 4.30am, Samuel Masih, a Christian awaiting trial for blasphemy, was beaten to death by a policeman who was supposed to be protecting him in hospital. The policeman, who hit Samuel around the head with a brick cutter, said afterwards that he had felt compelled by his faith to kill him. He added: “I have offered my religious duty for killing the man. I’m spiritually satisfied and ready to face the consequences.” Samuel Masih was accused of throwing waste against the wall of a mosque and was beaten up last August by a Muslim prayer leader and others in Lahore, and then handed over to the police. He was arrested on August 23, 2003 and held in Lahore Central Jail, where he remained until May 22 when he was hospitalised with tuberculosis.

Some people accused of blasphemy have been acquitted by the High Court, but even then they are not safe. In the eyes of extremists, once a person is accused of blasphemy they are marked for life. So if acquitted, a person has to live the rest of their lives in hiding – or in exile. In some cases, those accused of blasphemy face such severe risks that they have to flee the country. Ayub Masih was charged with blasphemy in October 1996, and faced repeated threats in prison. Throughout his trial, extremists packed the courtroom and threatened to kill Ayub, his lawyers and the judge if he was not convicted and hanged. In November 1997, he was shot at by the complainant inside the Sahiwal sessions court, and a year later he was sentenced to death by the court. However, in a bold ruling in 2002 the Supreme Court in Islamabad overturned the judgment, acquitting him and ordering his immediate release. The court ruled that the allegations were “baseless and false”. But Ayub, whose case was high profile, remained in grave danger following his release, and had to go into hiding and then exile.

Since 1986, the number of deaths, false convictions, wrongful imprisonments, cases of torture and religiously-motivated violence has risen significantly. The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church concludes that: “No other law in the name of religion has had a more devastating and massive effect in recent years than the blasphemy laws.” Many, perhaps most, blasphemy cases are not even directly related to religion – they usually revolve around land-grabbing disputes or personal vendettas.

In addition to the threats and violence against lawyers and blasphemy suspects, allegations of blasphemy often provoke mass communal violence directed against Christian and other non-Muslim communities. In April 2008, a Hindu factory worker, Jagdesh Kumar, was beaten to death after rumours spread that he had committed blasphemy. In November 2005, some of the worst anti-Christian violence broke out in Sangla Hill, Punjab. A mob destroyed churches, accusing a Christian man, Yousaf Masih, of desecrating the Qu’ran. According to the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), “within minutes the Christian residential area was blazing. Christian residents fled to save their lives.” Eyewitnesses claimed that the attack was premeditated, as the mob had been brought in on buses.

The abuse of the blasphemy laws is one of the most systematic and severe issues facing the people of Pakistan, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is a pivotal issue, because in addition to the direct hardship it causes for those falsely accused of blasphemy, the abuse of the law creates an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance in which other acts of religiously-motivated violence, discrimination, intimidation and persecution become more widespread.

For example, Christians and other minorities are denied promotion in many parts of public service, and often face violent persecution. Women from Christian and other minority backgrounds are particularly vulnerable. While women of all religions face various forms of domestic and sexual violence, including the threat of ‘honour killings’, Christian women – and young girls – appear to be particularly targeted for sexual violence. Rape is used as a weapon to insult, demean and destroy minority communities, and often young girls who are abducted and raped are then forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors. On Easter Day 2007, Shaheena Masih, aged 12, was kidnapped and gang-raped by four Muslim men in Lahore. According to APMA, one of the rapists told his accomplices: “Don’t hesitate to rape a Christian girl. Even if she dies, no one will get us. Her poor parents cannot pursue us.”

Despite the litany of violence and discrimination, there have been occasional moments of hope in Pakistan regarding the treatment of minorities. In November 2008, Shahbaz Bhatti, founder and President of APMA, was appointed to the Cabinet as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. Bhatti, who was elected to the National Assembly earlier in the year, is one of Pakistan’s most outspoken activists, a leading campaigner for the repeal of the blasphemy laws and equal rights for all religious communities. His appointment, and the promotion of his ministerial position to Cabinet-level for the first time in Pakistan’s history, is a welcome indicator of the intentions of Pakistan’s new government.

Reform or repeal of the blasphemy laws is the next step for campaigners – but significant change will require courage on the part of legislators and the government. So far, such courage has not been seen. An attempt to introduce serious reform in 2007 was fiercely opposed. A Hindu member of the National Assembly, Minocher Bhandara, proposed amending the blasphemy laws by reducing the penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet from death to five years in prison and a fine. He also proposed applying the laws equally to all religions, not only Islam. Campaigners would prefer to see the laws repealed, but recognised that such a step would be unachievable in the current climate. However, even the moderate reforms proposed drew strong opposition from the government. The Parliamentary Affairs Minister described the amendments as “un-Islamic”, and added: “Islam is our religion and such bills hurt our feelings. This is not a secular state but the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

On 6 May 1998, the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, Bishop John Joseph, a leading campaigner against the blasphemy laws, stood in front of the court building in Sahiwal and, as an act of protest at the death sentence passed on Ayub Masih, shot himself dead. A few days previously, he had told friends that if the blasphemy laws were not repealed, “we will launch a protest which will stun the whole world”. In a letter to the Vatican, sent following seven days of prayer and fasting, the Bishop wrote: “I only hope and pray that God accepts the sacrifice of my blood for his people”. Ten years after his death, little has changed in Pakistan. Did Bishop John Joseph die in vain?

Related articles:

‘Fundamentalisms’ Compared
By Henry Munson , University of Maine
(Vol. 3, June 2008)
Religion Compass

Islam in the Age of Globalization
By Bruce Lawrence , Duke University
(Vol. 3, May 2008)
Religion Compass

2 thoughts on “COMMENT: Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

  1. I’m a catholic, I’m sure I’m not the best, but surely not the worst. Religion should be about worshipping GOD, not about killing people for what they may say or think, or about Who they worship. I truly don’t care if your Muslim, Buddist, Jewish or any other Belief. Believing is what we should focus on. Not killing, bombing, or just plain hurting each other because we Believe in different religions. GROW UP! You’re not helping, show some HUMANITY!

  2. Pingback: Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan A Historical Overview « ALAIWAH!

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