09/30/2004, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Anti-blasphemy law: harassment and violence for all religions alike

Even a minister admits that the law to defend Islam gets abused.  Four thousand reports of blasphemy against Islam since 1986

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The numbers speak for themselves: 151 Muslims, 59 Ahmadis (Editor's note: members of a Muslim sect), 65 Christians and 5 Hindus charged with blasphemy for a total of 280 people.  These are the results of the anti-blasphemy law, which has been in force in Pakistan since 1986.  The law punishes those who offend the Koran with life in prison, and foresees the death penalty for those who insult Mohammad.  Since its enactment, dozens of Christians have been killed for having slandered Islam, 560 people have been accused, 30 are awaiting trial.  The law (Sections 295-B, C, 298-A, B, C of the Pakistani criminal code) is often called into play to settle personal vendettas and to vent hatred.  Religious Affairs minister, Ejaz ul Haq, admitted in a recent interview that, in the last 18 years, the law has been "abused".  From 1927 to 1986, in fact, there had been only 7 cases of blasphemy; instead, from 1986 to date, 4000 cases have been reported.

A recent report of the Lahore Archdiocese's Justice and Peace Commission illustrates how even Muslims viewed as "heretics" are victims of this law.  Such is the case of scholar Zahid Hussain Mirza, jailed since 1999 for his book "Muqaam-e-Nabooat" ("The Prophet's Status").  In this document, Zahid set out reformist interpretations of Wahabita thinking on questions related to visiting tombs of the deceased and on the identity of the Prophet as "a human being" and as "light".  During his 5 years in prison, Zahid came down with stomach cancer: he asked to be freed on health grounds, but the Court in Mirpur (210 km north of Lahore) ruled against provisional release on bail.  "Five years of prison for having written a book, without any proof: this would be unacceptable in any court in the world," says Peter Jacob, Secretary General of the Commission in Lahore, who for years has been fighting to have the law abolished.  Religious minorities and religious freedom activist have repeatedly sought its revocation: "The law on blasphemy has created new opposition in Pakistani society and has caused an increase in religious intolerance", Jacob stated, adding that "The suffering caused by it to hundreds of people and the loss of human life due to it should be enough to convince authorities to seriously re-examine it."

At the urging of President Musharraf over past months, the anti-blasphemy law was revised last July, but only at the technical and procedural level: the death penalty for those who slander Islam was confirmed.

Many Christians have been killed by Islamic extremists who take their inspiration from the anti-blasphemy law.  The most recent victim, Nasir Masih, age 21, died August 20 as a result of police torture.  In May, another two Christians, Samuel Masih and Javed Anjum, were killed: Samuel, charged under the anti-blasphemy law, was killed by a policeman in a Lahore hospital; Javed was tortured to death by Islamic extremists in the Jamia Hassan Bin Murtaza madras, in Punjab.
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