After Asia Bibi, No Changes Expected in Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

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( – Asia Bibi put a name and face to the plight of Christians and other minorities targeted by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but many more are suffering, and the government looks unlikely to amend or repeal them.

Campaigners for minority rights in Pakistan are not optimistic, given public sentiment in the world’s second biggest Muslim-majority country, where mainstream “Barelvi” Sunni Muslims hold extreme views regarding blasphemy and shari’a.

Some are doubtful outside pressure will work, although others believe influential countries could leverage aid, trade and other cooperation in a bid to encourage change in Islamabad.

Now safe in Canada, Asia Bibi was the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan for purportedly blaspheming Mohammed and was on death row for eight years. Six months ago the Supreme Court acquitted her, prompting violent protests by zealots demanding her execution. Authorities have only now allowed her to leave the country.

Pakistan’s penal code has a general provision (section 295-A) outlawing “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

But then subsequent provisions apply to Islam only – the death penalty for insulting Mohammed (295-C) and a sentence up to life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an (295-B).

The British Pakistani Christian Association is supporting 15 Christians imprisoned for alleged blasphemy or Qur’an desecration since 2013, and according to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) at least 40 people are currently on death row or serving life sentences for the offense.

“We ask the Pakistani government to nullify the blasphemy law and acquit them of the charges,” USCIRF chairman Tenzin Dorjee said on Wednesday.

For years Pakistani governments have resisted challenges to the laws, and attempts by liberal lawmakers to promote change them have been stymied.

Sardar Mushtaq Gill, head of the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD), attributed the government’s reluctance to act both to fear of hardliners’ response and to sentiment within its own ranks.

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There were elements in the government, he said Thursday, “who wish to save criticism against Islam and its values.”

Gill, a human rights lawyer who has faced death threats for campaigning against the laws, expressed hope that the Asia Bibi case “will lead to new pressure on the Pakistan government to change or repeal the laws.”

What is needed, he said, is for the penal code to be amended to place all religions on equal footing, by removing the blasphemy provisions exclusively applying to Islam.

Contrary to shari’a

Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan, said Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in unlikely to tackle the laws, and said another current controversy gives an indication of the prevailing climate.

Liberal lawmakers have been trying to years to pass legislation outlawing child marriage in a country where, according to U.N. figures, more than one in five brides are children. Islamists in and out of parliament claim a ban would be contrary to shari’a.

The Senate eventually passed a bill this week setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but not before some senators – including members of the government – voiced strong opposition on religious grounds. Opposition in the lower National Assembly is expected to be much stronger.

Walter said the government’s handling of the child marriage issue reveals its lack of “seriousness to making changes in society,” and he consequently does not expect any changes to the blasphemy laws.

“The government is under pressure of their own parliamentarians who are pro-Islamic laws and shari’a supporters.”

He urged the international community to apply pressure by linking the amendment or repeal of blasphemy laws to ongoing and future aid, loans or trade deals with Pakistan.

Asif Aqeel, a Pakistani researcher on religious minority issues, said he did not believe the Asia Bibi case would lead to new pressure on the government.

“The larger population of Pakistan is in favor of the blasphemy laws so the government cannot even think of amending them.”

Aqeel said change in Pakistan would take decades.

“I think just changing any laws shouldn’t be the goal,” he said. “Transforming our society into a progressive one is the main goal and that is where international community can help.”

Campaigners say the laws are often abused for personal gain, and are used by radicals to stoke up hatred against non-Muslims.

“Individuals have fabricated charges of blasphemy against others in their communities to settle petty disputes,” Gill said.

“Religious extremists have exploited blasphemy laws to justify attacks on religious minorities, thereby fostering an environment of intolerance where discrimination is effectively condoned by the state.”

Mobs have frequently taken the law into their own hands, attacking people accused of blasphemy or those who defend supposed blasphemers.

Two decades ago, a High Court judge in Lahore was murdered in his chambers after acquitting two men of blasphemy charges.

In 2011 a liberal Muslim governor and a Christian federal cabinet minister were assassinated over their opposition to the laws and support for Asia Bibi.

In 2014, a lawyer representing a university lecturer facing blasphemy charges was shot dead.

That same year a Christian couple was burned alive in a brick kiln after a mob accused them of desecrating a Qur’an.

After successive U.S. administrations declined to do so for 16 years, the State Department last November designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom abuses.

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