Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

PAKISTAN: Blasphemy Law Carries Over Into New Year

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jan 1 2011 (IPS) - In the face of protests and a nationwide strike called by hardline religious parties against any changes to the blasphemy law, Pakistani Christians have had little to cheer about over the Christmas and New Year season.

A rally in Karachi in support of the blasphemy law. Credit: Fatema Tabassum

A rally in Karachi in support of the blasphemy law. Credit: Fatema Tabassum

The protest was called against a private bill by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) member and former information minister Sherry Rehman. The bill seeks to eliminate the death penalty, criminalize incitement, and penalize false accusations.

Large rallies were organized in protest against the bill across Pakistan on Christmas Eve, followed by a nationwide strike called on New Year’s Eve. The protests have been unsettling for Pakistan’s 2.8 million Christians, in a population of 170 million.

On Dec. 31 traffic remained thin and markets pulled down shutters in big cities across the country. “The mullahs will breathe fire from the pulpit, moving the masses to murder in the Prophet’s name,” Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, academic and peace activist told IPS ahead of the protest. “A helpless state will cower in fright.”

That is exactly what happened. On Dec. 29, minister for religious affairs Khurshid Shah said in a bid to placate the clerics: “I state with full responsibility that the government has no intention to repeal the blasphemy law. If someone has brought in a private bill, it has nothing to do with the government.” The government reneged on its manifesto promise to review discriminatory laws.

I. A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said the religious parties know they have a weak case, and so they “make great noise to scuttle any discourse on this law.” A strongly-worded editorial in the English daily Dawn Dec. 31 condemned the religious groups for seeking to settle the issue “on the streets” when the proposed bill had not even appeared before parliament.

The protesters underlined their support for the blasphemy law by demanding death for Aasia Bibi. On Nov. 15 Bibi, 45, became the first woman to be handed the death penalty for blasphemy. “Hang her, hang her,” chanted male protesters at rallies.

Bibi, a Roman Catholic farmhand and mother of five, was accused of blasphemy after a small altercation with her Muslim female co-workers, and put behind bars last June.

The clerics have also rounded on Sherry Rehman. They have “vowed to silence” her, and declared her ‘waajibul qatl’ (mandatory to be killed). “It comes with this kind of territory,” Rehman told IPS.

The original blasphemy law drawn up by the British and amended in 1986 by General Zia-ul-Haq provides for a mandatory death sentence under section 295C. Critics say the law is often used for personal vendetta.

According to the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation of the Catholic Church of Pakistan, at least 1,060 people have been charged under the blasphemy law between 1986 and 2010. These include 133 Christians, 450 Muslims, 456 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus.

To date no conviction has been carried out, but 34 people have been killed by angry mobs or individuals. “Bibi is very scared she may be killed extra- judicially,” said Atif Jamil Paggan, a Christian leader who met her shortly after she was convicted.

Yousuf Qureshi, imam of the Mohabat Khan mosque in Peshawar in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province has announced a reward of 6,000 dollars for anyone who kills Bibi. He said that if the court finds her innocent, ‘mujahideen’ would kill her. No action has been taken against the imam for inciting violence.

Civil society leaders, rights activists and some politicians are renewing calls for immediate amendment of the law. “But a few voices for sanity are not enough,” said Hoodbhoy. “Civil society does not have the strength to take on the clerics,” added HRCP’s Rehman.

“Civil society’s voice has been rather weak on the issue,” agreed Bushra Gohar, legislator from the Awami National Party, who had submitted a bill last year for repeal of the blasphemy law. “The bill will only be tabled in the assembly when there is sufficient political will for it.”

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