“Because of cases in which people are falsely accused of blasphemy, the whole of Pakistani society is suffering. Many people would say we are fed up with this situation.”
These comments from Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Pakistan, make no bones about the heartache caused when Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are abused.
Over the course of many years, I have witnessed such suffering first-hand when I have visited Pakistan with Aid to the Church in Need and met people forced into hiding because of death threats resulting from false blasphemy allegations.
Controversy surrounding the blasphemy laws relates as much to their contents as their application – and both these factors explain why it has thus far proved so difficult for government in Pakistan to amend the law, let alone repeal it.
Enshrined within the Pakistan Penal Code are two articles of great concern with regard to the blasphemy laws. The first is 295B whereby defiling the Koran carries a sentence of life imprisonment. The second is 295C, which applies a mandatory death sentence for words – spoken or written – deemed to have caused disrespect to Muhammad. The laws’ severe sentences point to their sacred status in Pakistan, a country which is nearly 97 per cent Muslim and where, in recent years, there has been a radical swing in an Islamist direction resulting from what the bishops have termed a “talibanisation of society”.
This explains why in Pakistan the culture is frequently dismissive of formal legal structures, meaning that zealots take matters into their own hands, pursuing people accused of blasphemy irrespective of legal proceedings. And it also explains why people – including those of the highest rank in Pakistan – have been killed for even hinting at reforms to the blasphemy laws.
After Asia Bibi’s acquittal last October, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the political party founded in 2015 to defend the blasphemy laws, showed the scale of its support by encouraging protests that blocked roads causing gridlock across the country. Although Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was able to arrest more than 50 TLP leaders, the party had proved the point: the blasphemy laws were not to be called into question.
Fr Emmanuel “Mani” Yousaf, head of the National Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan, told me earlier this week: “Changes to the law are impossible. No government will touch it.” It is, however, possible to lobby for changes to stop the legislation being abused.
Fr Mani proposes that police authorities investigate blasphemy allegations before formal cases are lodged. He also calls for a ban on Muslim leaders rallying mob support against alleged blasphemy offenders, as well as prosecuting people found to have fabricated allegations.
According to Fr Mani and other advocates of such reforms, these changes would reduce the chances of blasphemy accusations becoming the precursor for attacks, not just against the alleged perpetrator but also their family and indeed anyone in the community deemed to be implicated in their crime.
If Pakistan is to succeed in its struggle over extremism, corruption and incompetence, the government will have no option but to address the place of the blasphemy laws in society and how they are enforced. In so doing, the country would begin to learn the lessons of a monumental failure of justice, in which a Christian mother and farm labourer spent nearly a decade behind bars, fearing for her life and condemned for a crime she had never committed.
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK)
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