10/27/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Pakistan, Christians and Muslim leaders: repeal blasphemy law

by Fareed Khan
A popular current emerges in the nation calling for the cancellation of the law, responsible for the abuse and violence against religious minorities. It is unconstitutional and contrary to the principles of Islam. The solidarity of Muslims and the importance of a new educational model for young people.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Christians, Hindus, Muslims and legal experts, religious scholars and activists for human rights, in unison, are concerned about the abuses perpetrated in the name of the blasphemy law in Pakistan and call for its repeal.

 A popular front is emerging in the country which promises to bring the battle for the cancellation of the norm that provides for life imprisonment or the death penalty for those who profane the Koran, or defame the name of the prophet Muhammad. The bill was introduced in 1986 under the dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who wanted the application to meet the demands of the fundamentalist wing. Over the years it has been used as an excuse to unleash violence against minorities or target the economic activity and property of others.  

Last weekend, two meetings were held: on 24 October in Karachi, organized by Peoples Resistance, a civil society group, and the other in Rawalpindi organised by Pakistan Christian Congress.  The participants declared the blasphemy laws “unjust, unconstitutional and an instrument in hands of extremists to target vulnerable religious minorities”.

From meetings of the weekend an interfaith movement has emerged that - on legal, religious, cultural and moral grounds- wants to fight for the abolition of the law. Rana Bhagwandas, a retired judge and guest of honour at a seminar in Karachi, points out that the blasphemy law  that "was introduced by General Zia to legitimize the dictatorship under the cloak of Islam," has created a "bad image" of religion and is being used "to persecute minorities, and Muslims themselves." Constitutional lawyer Zain Sheikh adds that the norm is "unconstitutional and should be repealed”, but it needs a "change in the way of thinking of those bigots who incite crowds to violence".

Khalid Zaheer, an Islamic scholar, believes that "according to the Quran a person can not be killed for blasphemy," because the death sentence is only required for "murder or an attempt on people's lives": The state, not the individual, “must apply this law. The Ulema have a great responsibility in this area". He also calls for a "reduction in the penalties".

This is echoed by Hilda Saeed, an activist for women's rights, who denounces: "Pakistan is one of the countries where the right of protection of minorities is less respected ". Bishop Jiaz Inayat Masih, president of the interfaith forum for friendship, points the finger at the "society" that has failed "at various levels to promote the values of the human person" and recalls that "God has given us freedom of choice in terms of faith".

Even in Rawalpindi the PCC and Pakistan Masihi League discussed the blasphemy law, by focusing on steps to be taken to "maintain peace and harmony in Pakistan." Nazir S Bhatti, President of PCC, in a videoconference from the United States urged "to President Zardari to repeal the law" by an "executive order" to "eradicate terrorism in the country” and" to ensure the security of religious minorities and their property " . "Pakistan is undergoing a crucial phase in its history - he added - the extremists and insurgents have taken hostage of civil society in creating an atmosphere of fear and chaos".

Salamat Akhtar, scholar and chairman of the Pakistan Masihi League highlights an absurdity within the law: in fact those who blacken the name of the prophet Mohammed are punished, but nothing is said against those who "offend the name of Allah in public””. Faisal Anwar, a Muslim leader of the movement Passdar-e-Pakistan, agrees with Christian leaders on the need to remove the law: "I am a Muslim – he clarified - but I wish with all my heart that the blasphemy law is abolished" and  he is "close" to Christians in this battle.

Mehboob Sada, director of the Christian Study Center and guest of honour at the meeting in Rawalpindi - over which hung the threat of Islamic fundamentalists - emphasized the need to act with wisdom and responsibility, through "promoting" the education of young people so they are equipped to meet the challenges of the world. " "Acting with responsibility – he concludes  - is more important than acting with emotion".

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