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Pakistan’s legislature passes bill to increase blasphemy penalties to life in prison 

August 15, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
Pakistanis protest Nov. 2, 2018, in Lahore, shortly after the nation’s supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges. / AMSyed/Shutterstock.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 15, 2023 / 15:02 pm (CNA).

Pakistani lawmakers passed legislation that could land someone a life sentence in prison for insulting any wife, family member, or companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, which would set a maximum penalty of life in prison for such offenses with a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, has now passed both houses of Parliament. Under current law, blasphemy violations are only punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine, or both.

To become law, the bill still needs the president’s signature.

Pakistan’s lower legislative chamber, the National Assembly, passed the bill in January and the country’s upper chamber, the Senate, passed it last week on Aug. 7. The goal of this bill, based on its statement of objectives, is to crack down on “blasphemy on the internet and social media,” which has led to “terrorism” and “disruption in the country,” according to the Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn.

The anti-blasphemy law would apply to any person who directly or indirectly “defiles the sacred name” of any wife, family member, or companion of Muhammad through written word, spoken word, visible representation, imputation, innuendo, or insinuation. The companions of Muhammad refer to Muslims who personally met him during his life.

Pakistan already punishes those who defile or insult the Qur’an with life imprisonment. Those who defile the name of Muhammad or other Muslim prophets are punished with death. The Muslim prophets include Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and other biblical figures. 

Human rights groups have raised concerns that the laws could be used to target religious minorities in Pakistan. More than 95% of Pakistan is Muslim, and more than 75% of the country follows Sunni Islam.

From 1987 through the beginning of 2021, more than 1,800 people were charged with blasphemy under the country’s various anti-blasphemy laws. As of March of this year, there were about 40 people who were either serving life sentences or on death row for blasphemy convictions. Since 1990, more than 80 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy.

In one high-profile case, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010, but her conviction was overturned by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018. She denied the allegation that she violated the blasphemy law and ultimately sought refuge in Canada.

“Pakistani governments usually turn to the blasphemy laws when there is a political crisis, and to deflect attention from the country’s continuing economic and social woes,” Paul Marshall, the head of the South and Southeast Asian Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA. “The current push to strengthen the laws continues this trend.”

“While half the victims are Muslim, the blasphemy laws disproportionately victimize religious minorities, and repeated studies have shown that they are used as a means of intimidation or score-settling in private disputes,” Marshall said. “The proposed increase in such laws will increase the climate of religious fear that already grips minorities.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights group that advocates for religious freedom and against the persecution of Christians, has also come out strongly against the legislation. 

Mervyn Thomas, president of CSW, said the organization is “deeply disappointed” in the passing of the legislation and warned that there is “overwhelming evidence of how the existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations.” 

“Making the blasphemy laws more stringent could inflame the situation further and is the opposite of what is needed,” Thomas said in his statement.

Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws have been used against Christians and Hindus, who make up less than 5% of the country’s population. The laws related to insulting the companions of Muhammad and some other anti-blasphemy laws have also been used to target minority sects of Islam in the country, such as Shia Muslims, who make up about 15% of the population, and Ahmadi Muslims, who make up less than 3% of the population.

One of the key disagreements that separates Shia Islam from Sunni Islam rests on beliefs about who was the legitimate successor of Muhammad, which leads to accusations against Shia Muslims that they are insulting the companions of Muhammad when they voice their disagreements. The Sunnis recognize Abu Bakr, a companion of Muhammad, as Muhammad’s successor. Many Shia Muslims view him as an illegitimate leader and believe that Muhammad appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib, another companion of Muhammad, as his successor.


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Pakistan tightens its already far-reaching blasphemy laws

January 23, 2023 Catholic News Agency 3
Pakistanis protest Nov. 2, 2018, in Lahore, shortly after the nation’s supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges. / AMSyed/Shutterstock.

St. Louis, Mo., Jan 23, 2023 / 14:45 pm (CNA).

The parliament of Pakistan moved this week to tighten its already far-reaching blasphemy laws, under which numerous Christians and other minorities have been prosecuted and subjected to mob violence, often for dubious charges of blasphemy against beliefs or figures associated with Islam. 

Insulting the Prophet Muhammad is already, at least on paper, a capital offense in Pakistan. Under the newest legal changes, those convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, companions, or close relatives will now face 10 years in prison, a sentence that can be extended to life, along with a fine of 1 million rupees, or roughly $4,500, reported the New York Times. It also makes the charge of blasphemy an offense for which bail is not possible.

Islam is the state religion of Pakistan, and blasphemy laws have been on the books in the country for more than a century, even before it became an independent nation. A notable escalation of the country’s blasphemy laws occurred in 1987 when the death sentence was made mandatory for some violations. 

One of the most famous cases in recent years was that of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who spent nearly a decade on death row after being accused of disparaging Islam. Numerous world leaders called for her immediate release, including Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. In October 2018, the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned her blasphemy conviction. She subsequently fled the country and reportedly still receives death threats.  

Edward Clancy, director of outreach for the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told CNA that each time Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been changed since the 1980s, they have become harsher. He noted that although the laws are not applied solely to Christians — many Muslims are charged as well — the fact that accusations against Christians are so common in a country that is 97% Muslim means the laws are not being equally applied. 

“Any time Pakistan enhances the law or increases the possibility for cases to be brought up, it’s not good for Christians,” Clancy told CNA in an interview.

Clancy noted that even if a Christian is not arrested or prosecuted by the state, accusations of blasphemy can ruin lives or even lead to death, as mobs and vigilantes, stirred up to violence, often take the matter into their own hands. Pakistani authorities, while touting the fact that the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, often ignore the many mob killings and disappearances that have taken place after an accusation of blasphemy, he said.

“The punishment is almost never administered by the state, but rather by mob justice,” he noted.

ACN’s primary mission is to support the pastoral life of the Catholic Church, and in the case of Pakistani Christians, this means helping many of the victims of the blasphemy laws in their legal cases, Clancy said. Of great concern, he said, is the difficulties they have faced in finding lawyers willing to argue the cases because they can themselves become targets of a mob. Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law have also been targeted by violence.

Clancy said ACN will continue to offer support for those victims of the blasphemy laws in legal and pastoral support. He urged prayers for the Christian community in Pakistan and suggested that people contact their elected representatives about the issue. Pakistan is designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the U.S. State Department, a designation that carries with it the possibility of sanctions, but these have not been well applied, Clancy said. He said he worried about the continued strengthening of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, warning that such laws are making Christianity virtually impossible to practice in Pakistan. 

He mentioned a current blasphemy case in Pakistan of two Christian nuns who, in April 2021, were accused of blasphemy after temporarily moving some decorative Islamic phrases from the wall of a hospital room while cleaning the room. Two years later, the women are still under this “prolonged indictment,” he said. 

“The evidence is in their favor. The accusation appears vindictive and baseless. Even should these two women be found not guilty, they will not be safe in Pakistan. They and their families will have to flee. With the new laws being broadened, there will be more opportunities for injustice,” Clancy said. 

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are reportedly used to settle scores — even among the most powerful — or to persecute religious minorities. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who supported the country’s blasphemy laws as a candidate, was himself charged by his successor’s government for blasphemy in May of last year. In November, Khan survived an assassination attempt at a political rally that appeared to be religiously motivated.  

Pakistan’s authorities have consistently failed to implement safeguards on behalf of religious minorities, despite numerous policies in favor of economic and physical protections for members of non-Muslim religions. As of 2020, at least 40 people were serving a life sentence or facing execution for blasphemy in the country.