Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said that his government would ensure that the blasphemy law is not misused by anyone. He made the important statement last Saturday, after a series of very serious episodes of religious intolerance and persecution and after a number of prominent political leaders asked for changes to the law. Eventually, these were met with protests by Islamic extremists.
Mr Zardari discussed the issue in London, where he met Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and acknowledged that extremists were misusing the law.
The law punishes any offense against religion and anyone trying to convert others. Muslim extremists, often with the complicity of police and local authorities, have used it to persecute and jail non-Muslims, especially Christians, and moderate Muslims.
At least 33 people accused of proselytising have been massacred by enraged mobs or killed by individual fanatics.
The problem re-emerged recently when a young Christian man was found dead on 15 September in Sailkot Prison where he was held on blasphemy charges.
Last Friday during a visit to Washington, Pakistan’s Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, said that the Pakistani government would change the law that extremists “are using [. . .] to victimise [religious] minorities as well as Muslims of Pakistan. [. . .] The stand of the Pakistani government is to review, revisit and amend blasphemy law so it will not remain a tool in the hands of extremists.”
Shahbaz Bhatti was in Washington at the invitation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which gave him an award for championing the rights of minorities in Pakistan.
Last Saturday the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer said that the law must be repealed to protect minorities, especially Christians, against violence and persecution, a position he had asserted already two days earlier.
Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), told AsiaNews that the “statement from the governor of Punjab’ was “important and welcome”, adding that he hoped the central government would take the same view.
Various Islamic-based opposition parties slammed Salman Taseer’s statement, demanding his resignation and accusing him of trying to use a few violent anti-minority incidents for his own purpose. They also announced that they would take to the streets to oppose any changes to the law.
Taseer responded on Saturday to his critics, asking what clerics and politicians did to prevent Christians from being burnt alive in the name of this law.
A wind of change appears to blowing across the country and even a sizable section of the press has come out against the law.
In an editorial article, the Daily Times wrote on 17 September that “Christians killed in the name of Islam never get justice. The only way an accused can be saved is to bundle him out of the country after releasing him on bail.”
Another editorial that appeared on 18 September in the Dawn said that the “Punjab government needs to take urgent steps to protect minorities in the province for the situation there is deteriorating. The centre, meanwhile, should start working towards the repeal of the blasphemy laws. For too long they have been used to settle personal scores, grab land—and to kill. These draconian laws must be struck off the books.”