End blasphemy law in Pakistan say campaigners

A programme of religious re-education is needed in Pakistan says the former Bishop of Rochester

The former Bishop of Rochester has led calls for a repeal of the Blasphemy law of Pakistan.

Under the law, section 295c of the country’s penal code, those accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed may be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. They are fined in addition.

“The law is sometimes used for a personal agenda that has nothing to do with blasphemy – eg an interest in a neighbour’s property” said Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who last weekend stepped down as bishop of the Kent diocese of Rochester.

His comments follow a wave of violence in August in which eight Christians were burnt alive, and a further 20 attacked when a 3,000-strong Muslim mob attacked the Eastern town of Gojra. Two days earlier, on August 3rd, gangs in the nearby village of Korian set fire to more than 70 Christian homes and two Protestant churches. The attacks, condemned by religious leaders including Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, were rated among the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history.

“I have always said this was a bad law,” said Dr Nazir-Ali. “Muslims who take their tradition seriously say that when the Prophet of Islam was insulted he forgave those who insulted them, so how can their be a law like this in his name?”

Nasir Saeed, the director of CLAAS (the Centre for Legal Aid and Resettlement) an advocacy centre that offers free legal aid to Christians persecuted on religious grounds, has written a letter in protest to the government of Pakistan.

“We strongly believe that persecution against Christians is at a very critical point,” he says. “We are deeply concerned.”

On tuesday, Fanish Masih, a 19-year-old Christian, charged with breaking the Blasphemy law was found dead, after hanging in his prison cell in Sialkot.

Reports from Pakistan, adds Mr Saeed, suggest that Masih was murdered and had been tortured beforehand.

“Reliable sources told us that he had multiple fractures, a scar on his forehead, cuts on his wrist, scars on his legs and of course scars on his neck resulting from strangulation.”

He said: “Several Christians have been killed in detention over the past few years especially those allegedly charged of blasphemy. Yet so far, nobody has been charged with their murders.”

Mr Saeed claimed that tension for local Christians had risen dramatically following the August violence. “Many families have fled the area. Segregation against Christians is on the rise as many have been dismissed by their Muslim employers on the ground of their religion. Some Christian students have been forced to change schools. The tension is incredibly high and the situation is far from returning to normal.”

The War on terror, he added in an interview with The Times, was an aggravating factor. He said that local Muslims may have been supplied with weapons by members of Al Qaeda who have been pushed out of the North West Frontier, and that local Christians are often associated with the West, and the presence of American or British troops in Afghanistan.

However, Dr Nazir-Ali said that many “moderate Muslims” such as Pakistan’s president and prime minister were “as outraged as we are” by the violence. He said: “At heart this is not a Muslim-Christian question but one of addressing attacks on unarmed people by heavily armed groups.

Dr Nazir-Ali said that in Pakistan a vast programme of re-education was needed: “The wider agenda is the provision of Religious Education on the syllabus in schools and the reform of the Madrassahs. All these things need to go hand in hand.”

The violence, he added, was a recent development: “For a long time Christians and Muslims have lived together. It is only in the past 25 – 30 years that the process of radicalisation has become ingrained and people have been incited to accuse their neighbours of blasphemy.”

Dr Nazir-Ali, who will be campaigning on behalf of persecuted Christians in Asia and Africa through the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, urged the public to keep up pressure for a change on the Pakistan Government: Questions whether present government will deliver its dispositions. That is why the pressure needs to be kept up.”

Blasphemy laws in pakistan