LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan’s lower house of parliament has passed legislation to make the country’s blasphemy laws stricter even as their blatant misuse again came to light in a threat to falsely charge a Christian woman.
The woman, a Catholic widow, was terrified after a Muslim colleague threatened to file the false blasphemy charge because she refused his demand to commit wrongdoing in their work, she said.
Samina Mushtaq, a security official with Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said a Muslim CAA facilities official, Muhammad Salim, on Jan. 7 demanded she allow an unauthorized vehicle into the parking area of the cargo terminal at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.
“Salim threatened to accuse me of blasphemy when I refused to surrender to his illegal demand,” she told Morning Star News. “He said he would call clerics and cut me up.”
Mushtaq began video-recording Salim’s threats as proof that she was being falsely accused if he acted on his threats, she said, adding that she uploaded the video on social media.
The CAA initiated an inquiry and temporarily suspended Salim from duty.
“I don’t know what would have become of me had I not recorded Salim’s threats on my phone and shared the video on social media,” Mushtaq said by telephone. “This is not the first time I’ve faced challenges at my workplace due to my Christian faith, but when Salim openly threatened to entrap me in a blasphemy case when I was only doing my job, I have become very fearful about the security of my family.”
Mushtaq said she is under intense pressure from Muslims to reach a “reconciliation” agreement with Salim. Such agreements usually further deprive members of minority religions of rights.
The Pakistan National Assembly’s passage on Jan. 17 of legislation that would expand blasphemy statutes has raised fears among Christians and rights activists. The unanimously passed Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill would increase punishment for insulting the companions, wives and family members of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, from three years to no fewer than 10 years along with a fine of $4,314 (1 million rupees).
The legislation, under Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), also would make the charge of blasphemy an offense for which bail is not possible. The legislation is expected to pass unanimously also in the Senate, and then it would require the president’s signature to become law.
Anglican Church of Pakistan Moderator/President Azad Marshall said the lower chamber’s unanimous approval of the legislation was worrisome for Pakistani Christians.
“The existing blasphemy laws have encouraged religious persecution for decades, and this new legislation is bound to exacerbate the problems for our people,” Marshall told Morning Star News.
Marshall said the church has repeatedly protested blatant misuse of the blasphemy statutes against Christians, and the new amendments would only lead to more abuse.
“Time and again we have demanded stricter punishment for false accusations of blasphemy as a deterrent to curb the misuse of the laws, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” he said. “The unanimous passage of this bill shows that the political parties are not inclined to protect citizens from false charges and are instead focused on appeasing their Islamist vote bank.”
Lahore-based Center for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob called the amendment “an unfortunate” development.
“Laws violating religious freedom are not debated in our legislatures and are passed unanimously without even allowing anyone to examine the bills and their implications on society,” he said.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also expressed its “deep concern” over the latest legislation.
“Given Pakistan’s troubled record of the misuse of such laws, these amendments are likely to be weaponized disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false charges, harassment, and persecution,” the group said in a statement.
The commission said increasing the penalty for alleged blasphemy will aggravate misuse of the law to settle personal vendettas, as is often the case with blasphemy allegations.
When Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party presented the bill in the lower house of parliament, he said the punishment for disrespecting figures held to be sacred who were close to Muhammad had been negligible.
“Due to capital punishment under Section 295-C, the ratio of people involved in blasphemy against the holy prophet is very low,” Chitrali said. “However, the fact may be observed that disrespecting a companion of the holy prophet and other sacred personalities not only promotes terrorism and disruption in the country but also hurts people belonging to all walks of life.”
He added that since it was a bailable crime and only resulted in imprisonment of three years along with a nominal penalty, it “encouraged people to commit the same crime again.”
“Such lenient punishment also leads to people taking the law into their own hands, resulting in violence,” he told lawmakers.
Zahid Akram Durrani, deputy speaker of the National Assembly, called the legislation “historic” as he congratulated the Muslim lawmakers for carrying out what many saw as their religious duty.
Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects, while penalties are light for those who make such false accusations.
The Center for Social Justice noted in a recent report that at least 1,949 persons had been accused under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2021. Eighteen more cases were reported up to July 14, 2022. Among those accused, 47.62 percent were Muslims, followed by 32.99 percent Ahmadis, 14.42 percent Christians, and 2.15 percent Hindus, while the religion of 2.82 percent was not confirmed.
Taking a stand on the blasphemy issue can also be dangerous. In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was fatally shot by one of his own bodyguards. Taseer had been an outspoken opponent of the blasphemy laws and had campaigned for the release of Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother convicted of insulting Islam’s prophet.
Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister and a Christian who had also opposed the death sentence imposed on Bibi, was fatally shot the same year.
Bibi, who left Pakistan in 2019 after her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, continues to receive death threats.
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from either the previous year.
Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.
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