Pakistan’s Deadly “Reform” to Controversial Blasphemy Laws
By William Stark
1/6/2014 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A recent order by the Federal Sharia Court (FSC) of Pakistan to “reform” Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws has Christians and other religious minorities fearing for the future of their religious communities in Pakistan. In early December, the FSC issued an order to the Pakistani government to remove life imprisonment from the ever shrinking list of punishments courts are allowed to consider when judging blasphemy cases, leaving death as the exclusive punishment for blasphemy.
Punishments Other Than Death ‘Un-Islamic’
On December 4, the five-member court headed by Justice Fida Hussain ordered the Pakistani government to enact the necessary laws to make the death penalty the only lawful punishment for blasphemy. The FSC has given the government a “couple of months” to implement its decision.
The FSC, which was established to determine whether laws are in agreement with the tenants of Islam, explored this issue after a contempt of court petition was filed based on a previous decision made by the court in 1990. In that decision, the FSC was asked to decide as to whether the punishment of life imprisonment for the crime of blasphemy was un-Islamic. In October 1990, the FSC ruled that life imprisonment as an alternative punishment for blasphemy was repugnant to Islam and, as the current FSC directed on December 4, ordered the government to remove the punishment of life imprisonment.
Christians Fear Increase in Persecution
While no action has been taken by the government to implement the FSC’s order, Christians and other religious minorities still fear that Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law could become deadlier in the near future. According to many in the international human rights community, religious minorities in Pakistan live in constant fear of being falsely accused under the blasphemy laws. These laws are frequently abused by radical elements in Pakistan’s Muslim population to either settle personal scores, seize property or businesses or to punish local minorities for perceived disrespect.
In late 2012, the case of Rimsha Masih highlighted the abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for the entire international community. In August 2012, Rimsha Masih, a teenage Pakistani girl suffering from mental challenges, was falsely accused of and arrested for burning pages of the Quran by a local imam in Islamabad.
When international outrage forced Pakistan to reinvestigate the facts surrounding Rimsha’s blasphemy accusation, it was discovered that Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the local imam who originally filed the blasphemy accusation against Rimsha, had in fact planted the pages of the religious text in Rimsha’s bag. This discovery led to Rimsha’s release from prison and the arrest of Hafiz.
False accusations like those made against Rimsha are not uncommon in Pakistan, especially when accusations are leveled against religious minorities. Unfortunately, not all Christians falsely accused of blasphemy are saved by the international media. Many are sentenced and are forced to desperately try to prove their innocence on appeal; a process that can take more than five years.
During a debate in the British House of Commons about the persecution of Christians worldwide, Member of Parliament Rehman Chishti, who was born in Pakistan, commented upon the abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to the detriment of its Christian community. “The blasphemy law is at the root of much suffering and persecution of Christians in Pakistan,” Chishti said. “The use and abuse of this law is the fundamental issue underpinning discrimination and open violence against Christians and local churches.”
There are still some who believe the Pakistani government will not implement the FSC’s order and that death being the exclusive punishment for blasphemy will not become law. In an interview with Morning Star News, High Court Attorney Shoaib Salim expressed hope that the court’s order could be ignored or reversed.
“The FSC is only empowered to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with Sharia [Islamic law] or not,” Salim said. “The ultimate decision rests with the parliament.” Salim went on to say that he believes it is unlikely the parliament will implement the FSC’s decision, given it would further incite religious hatred and persecution in Pakistan’s already intolerant Islamic society.
Whether or not Pakistan’s government will implement the FSC’s order to make death the exclusive punishment for blasphemy remains to be seen. If implemented, a law already routinely abused to persecute Christians and other religious minorities will only be made deadlier. As in the case of Rimsha Masih, the international community must come together and fight for true reform to be made to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. Without real reform, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws will remain a convenient weapon used by extremists in Pakistan to persecute Christians.