Pakistan May Review Blasphemy Laws Following Violence Aimed at Christians
August 6, 2009Pakistan's prime minister pledged Thursday to review laws that are "detrimental to religious harmony" nearly a week after a Muslim mob killed eight Christians following rumors that a Quran was desecrated.
Though he did not specify it, Yousuf Raza Gilani's announcement suggests that the government may review Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty for those convicted of insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad or the Muslim holy book.
To date no one has been executed under the blasphemy laws, but those prosecuted tend to be non-Muslim minorities. Anyone can make an accusation under the laws, and they are often misused to settle personal scores. Still, attempts to reform the related rules in the past have met with tremendous resistance in the conservative nation of 175 million, which is 95 percent Muslim.
"A committee comprising constitutional experts, the minister for minorities, the religious affairs minister and other representatives will discuss the laws detrimental to religious harmony to sort out how they could be improved," Gilani told a gathering in Gojra, the city where the eight Christians were killed and scores of homes belonging to Christians were burned last week.
He did not give more details or a timeframe, and his spokesman could not immediately provide more information.
Besides blasphemy laws, there are other legal measures that discriminate against certain religious groups in Pakistan.
For instance, a non-Muslim cannot be prime minister or president.
The Ahmadis, who consider themselves a Muslim sect, are forbidden from calling themselves Muslims or engaging in Muslim practices such as reciting Islamic prayers, according to the U.S. State Department's 2008 Human Rights Report.
The government has declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority because the group's founder declared himself a prophet centuries after Muhammad, who Muslims believe was the final prophet.
Pakistan's Constitution also requires that laws be consistent with Islam, which is the state religion.
The killings in Gojra come as extremist Islam, fed by a virulent Taliban insurgent movement, is on the rise in Pakistan, making minorities feel more vulnerable than ever. Even Shiite Muslims, the second largest sect in Islam, face threats from extremists in the Sunni Muslim majority.
Gilani is one of a series of government officials who have visited Gojra over the past few days to calm the community and assure them of financial aid and other assistance. He said the government would provide $1.2 million to help reconstruct the areas damaged by the rioting, which began last Thursday but hit a peak Saturday.
Authorities say initial investigations showed that rumors of a Quran being defiled were untrue. Officials also say that Sunni extremist groups in the area spearheaded the attacks.
Gilani said the government would observe next Tuesday as "a day for minorities."
"All those who were found responsible for the gory acts will get exemplary punishment to prove that all citizens are equal and no one is above law," Gilani said.
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