01/09/2006, 00.00
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"Government must intervene as blasphemy laws split country"

by Peter Jacob

The Justice and Peace Commission is calling for the "abrogation of discriminatory laws" and "decisive government action". "All delays encourage extremists to divide the country in the name of religion".

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The national Justice and Peace Commission, a body of the bishops' conference, has organized a protest "against the government's apathy to tackle social problems linked to the blasphemy laws and the Hudood ordinances".

The demonstration took place on 7 January in Lahore, outside the Press Club. Speakers drew attention to "government reluctance to resolve cases like what happened at Sangla Hill [where a Muslim mob destroyed the property of local Christians because of an alleged blasphemy case] in accordance with laws in force". They said this had created unrest "throughout the country".  

The laws and ordinances "are discriminatory" and "reduce religious freedom of Pakistani citizens, because they incite extremists to destruction and violence". The speakers added: "Despite repeated promises, the government has not met the appeals of the common people."

Appeals to the Musharraf government have been many: abrogate all discriminatory laws which are "tools of social disharmony"; make public the results of the inquiry into the Sangla Hill attack and that in Shantinaghar [where around 800 homes and 12 churches were destroyed and more than 35 Christians injured in February 1997]; punish the perpetrators of both incidents because 'every delay encourages the criminals and divides the country in the name of religion'; promote inter-faith harmony in the country through active engagement in at-risk areas.

The Blasphemy Law refers to sections b and c of article 295 in Pakistan's Penal Code. The first one refers to offences against the Qu'ran and carry life sentences; the second one involves defamatory actions against the prophet Muhammad that are punishable by the death penalty. Since 1996, the year when the law came into force, dozens of Christians have been killed for defaming Islam, 560 people were charged and 30 are still awaiting sentencing. Often the law is used to eliminate adversaries or enemies.

The "Hudood" ordinances are inspired by the Qu'ran. They punish behaviour deemed incompatible with Islam such as adultery, gambling and drinking alcohol. Whipping and stoning are the usual means to mete out justice.

Amendments approved in 2003 include harsher verdicts for honour killings (life imprisonment or death penalty) but often they are not applied.

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