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Passage of Pakistani Bill on ‘Apostates’ Called Unlikely

Government fighting extremism; death threats in two villages prove unfounded.

by Peter Lamprecht

7/13/07 Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – Christian and government leaders yesterday said they are hopeful that Pakistan ’s parliament is unlikely to support the death penalty for Muslims who abandon their faith.

Critics have worried that the Apostasy Act 2006, proposed in May, signaled further reduction of religious freedom in Pakistan , where vigilante enforcement of strict sharia law has been on the rise.

In the most high-profile example of such vigilante activity, burqa-clad members of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid or Red Mosque and religious schools had kidnapped people they accused of being prostitutes and harassed police and music/video-shop owners in recent months. The activities prompted a government siege and raid of the heavily-armed mosque members this week in which at least 102 people died.

The bill likely will not be approved in its original form by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice, where it is being revised, a member of the committee said.

“The person who changes religions of his own will and wish, according to his own thinking, should not be punished at all,” Dr. Sher Afgan Khan Niazi told Compass from Islamabad . “Therefore we don’t consider that it will be passed in this way.”

Proposed by the Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamic parties, the bill states that the testimony of two Muslim male witnesses would be sufficient to sentence to death a male “apostate” or man who changes his religion from Islam. A female “apostate” would receive life imprisonment.

According to article 5 of the draft, a convicted “apostate” would have up to 30 days to revert to Islam and avoid punishment. But repeat male offenders who committed “apostasy” a fourth time would not be given a chance to repent.

The draft drew condemnation from human rights organizations and the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which denounced the bill as “repressive” in a June 11 press release.

Peter Jacob of the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace told Compass the bill was politically motivated. The MMA, he said, was trying to create “a kind of frenzy” by stirring up religious feelings.

With elections approaching this fall, Jacob said that the MMA also wanted to appear not to be sitting idle but rather pushing for a form of Islamization.

Jacob said that the bill was unlikely to resurface as the government was busy fighting religious extremism. Besides the storming of the Lal Masjid this week, the government is countering extremism in madrassas (Islamic schools) and brooking protests from lawyers across Pakistan over President Pervez Musharraf’s dismissal of the Supreme Court Chief Justice in March.

In the aftermath of fighting at Lal Masjid, tens of thousands of people protested throughout the country following Friday prayers. The protests, called by the MMA and the Wafaq-ul-Madaris, a body of Islamic scholars representing more than 10,000 madrassas, were peaceful.

But in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan, police reportedly arrested three men with a car full of explosives, as well as seven explosive vests for suicide attacks.

Death Threats Fade

At the same time, calm returned to two Pakistani villages where death threats against Christians who refused to convert to Islam have not been carried out.

Christians in the villages of Shanti Nagar and Charsadda had feared for their lives after receiving letters threatening death if they refused to become Muslim in June and May.

Despite rising popular enforcement of strict sharia, the Christians in the two towns have concluded that the unfulfilled ultimatums to convert to Islam in recent months were isolated incidents and not cause for concern over a systematic campaign of violence.

Ten pastors and Christian political leaders in the majority-Christian village of Shanti Nagar in southern Punjab on June 12 received anonymous hand-written letters telling them and their families to convert to Islam.

“We invite you to accept Islam; in fact, we advise your family also to enter into the circle of Islam,” one letter to Union Council Member Kaleem Dutt said. The letter ended, “Don’t consider it as just a threat; we can impair you right now. Accept Islam, otherwise death!”

According to a report by the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, the Christians became increasingly worried when one of the threatened pastors’ sons, Abi Saloom, received two phone calls the same day telling him to take the letters seriously.

Church leaders immediately reported the incident to district police officer Shahid Haneef, who stationed a night guard outside of the village, CLAAS reported.

Shanti Nagar residents took the threats seriously, in part because their village took the brunt of one of Pakistan ’s worst episodes of anti-Christian violence in 1997, when 13 churches and 800 Christian homes were demolished by a mob of tens of thousands of Muslims.

But as threats failed to materialize, local Christians began to suspect that the letters were no more than low-level harassment.

“We find nothing serious or alarming, and this should not be taken as a reality,” Victor Azariah, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan , told Compass three weeks after the incident.

One month prior, on May 8, Christians in the town of Charsadda , North West Frontier Province , had fled their homes upon receiving a similar threat.

More than 50 Christians left the area upon hearing that Christian Union Council member Michael John had received an anonymous, hand-written letter threatening the community with death if it did not convert to Islam within 10 days.

The threat was repeated 10 days later, chalked on a wall opposite the town’s Protestant church.

According to sources in Charsadda, a young man named Jamsheed eventually confessed to having written the threat on the wall. Two other young men, Abdul Hasnat and Adur Rashid, were arrested on May 31 for sending the initial letter.

According to June 21 article on the website the young men claimed to have written the letter to take revenge on two Christian young men with whom they had quarreled.

Though Islamist groups in Charsadda have continued to bomb music/video shops deemed un-Islamic, including one blast on June 26 that damaged a dozen stores, threats against Christians have not been carried out.

“These incidents are proven to be individually motivated, and they don’t have the backing of any of the major [radical Islamist] organizations,” Jacob said, referring to Charsadda and Shanti Nagar. While Jacob admitted that the incidents constituted harassment of Christians, he cautioned against believing that they were part of a systematic persecution effort.

Christians make up 1.5 percent of Pakistan ’s population.