11/05/2009, 00.00
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Blasphemy legislation strikes minorities and Islamises the country, Pakistan priest says

The Taliban want to destroy democracy and spread a fundamentalist ideology, Fr Bonnie Mendes says. A small fringe is fighting extremism, but they have “no unity of intent.” Christians live in an atmosphere of fear, but are urged to be stronger.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Blasphemy laws are a means fundamentalists use to hit the “country’s minorities and those who do not submit to their will,” Fr Bonnie Mendes told AsiaNews. The clergyman and human rights activist is currently in Italy as coordinator for Caritas Asia. He denounces a “specific plan to attack anywhere anytime in order to Islamise Pakistan.”

Last week, AsiaNews launched an awareness campaign about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which impose life in prison or the death penalty on anyone who desecrates the Qur‘an or defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

Father Mendes, 70, knows Pakistan’s history very well, and is quite conscious of how a fundamentalist ideology is spreading across the country.  

He remembers very well remarks made a few months ago by Sufi Muhammad, spiritual guide to the Tahrik-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) movement, whose goal is to “destroy democracy in the world.”

“Extremism is not only a problem for the Pakistani government but is a global problem that must be faced globally,” he said.

About 25 per cent of the population sympathises with the Taliban. Even “they have even infiltrated the army and the political system.”

“They put fear into people because of the ongoing violence,” which strikes at the heart of cities, offices, police stations and ordinary people.

“There are people in government who want to change the situation but they lack unity of purpose,” the priest lamented.

Father Mendes, a former executive secretary for the Catholic Church of Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), is also critical of the court system, which sits in judgment in blasphemy cases.

“Widespread corruption is the first problem,” he said. “The government however is unable to uproot it. In blasphemy cases, judges are usually Muslim who, fearing for their safety, dare not openly oppose the enforcement of the law.”

However, there are small signs of home. Some fringes within the ruling political class “want change”. Even among Muslim religious leaders, “some voices are emerging against the blasphemy laws.”

“For the first time, there is a part of the country that wants to fight discriminatory laws; even ordinary folks have come to realise that it is important to fight the Taliban,” he said.

Finally, even if the Christian minority lives in “an atmosphere of fear”, Fr Mendes urges the faithful and the Church to “do more to deal with daily challenges” like persecution, poverty and Pakistan’s progress.

“It is important to see strong Christian journalists, intellectuals and public figures emerge,” he said, “conscious of their national mission and able to make themselves heard.” (DS)

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