The early December ruling by the federal shari’a court threatens to worsen an already grim situation faced by religious minorities. Currently those convicted of “defiling the name of Mohammed” face either life imprisonment or the death penalty, but the court wants the latter option to now be compulsory.
The court intervention comes amid growing calls around the world for the controversial blasphemy laws – often cited as the root cause of violence against Christians – to be repealed altogether, but Pakistani politicians have shown no willingness to take any step that would infuriate radical Muslims.
The federal shari’a court (FSC) is empowered under Pakistan’s constitution to decide whether any law is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government now has until February 4 to amend the penal code in line with the court’s order, or appeal.
Reaction to the current situation has been particularly strong in former colonial power Britain, where churches are urging the Pakistani government not to comply with the court order.
“We think many of us, both within and without Pakistan, recognize that there has been considerable misuse of the blasphemy laws in recent years,” heads of the Methodist Church wrote in a letter to Pakistani and British authorities. “Minorities and vulnerable people have been targeted and personal scores have been settled, quite contrary to the real intention of the law.”
“If this order is accepted by the government, achieving justice for those accused of blasphemy will be an even more difficult task.”
The moderator of the Church of Scotland, which has a long history in South Asia, said in a letter to the Pakistani and British governments it was concerned about the blasphemy laws’ use and abuse “to settle scores, exact revenge or inflame religious extremism,” and noted that half of those charged under the laws since 1988 have been non-Muslims, even though they make up just two percent of the population.
The church expressed concern about the implications of the FSC ruling, and reiterated earlier calls for the blasphemy law to be abolished in its entirety, arguing that it “goes against the traditions and teachings of Islam, and is at odds with the culture of the majority of Pakistanis.”
Concerns about the court ruling go beyond the mandatory death penalty aspect. The Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an organization that opposes the blasphemy law and provides legal assistance to Pakistani Christians, says that if the government complies with the court ruling, that will give shari’a courts jurisdiction over blasphemy cases in future.
“We all know the blasphemy laws are being misused to settle personal scores, and this will be taken to another height and victims from religious minorities will become defenseless and more vulnerable if it becomes shari’a law,” said CLAAS director Nasir Saeed.
“There is a longstanding demand of the Islamists that blasphemy cases should be heard by the shari’a courts,” he said. “The majority of ulemas [Muslim religious scholars] consider it a bigger sin than apostasy. There are even some who believe that there is no need to register a case against a blasphemer and that culprits should be punished on the spot, with it being the duty of every Muslim to ensure this is done.”
According to Human Rights Watch at least 16 Pakistanis are currently on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 are serving life sentences. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says 34 people were charged with blasphemy in 2013.
Although the government has yet to carry out an execution for blasphemy, dozens of people have been killed over the years, for instance by angry assailants or mobs, after being publicly accused. The National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body, lists at least 51 such deaths between 1990 and 2012.
The Obama administration has repeatedly criticized the blasphemy laws but has also overruled recommendations by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to designate Pakistan as an egregious religious freedom violator under U.S. law.
The FSC first ruled that the death penalty be mandatory for blasphemy convictions more than two decades ago, during Sharif’s previous tenure as prime minister.
The government at the time never implemented the ruling, and the court’s decision last month arose from a contempt of court petition brought by a lawyer.
Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund, a charity working among minority Christians in Islamic countries, says Sharif’s government appears to be sitting on the fence regarding the latest FSC order, “refusing either to accept or to resist the ruling publicly” – but cannot do so indefinitely.
“It is a crucial test of what kind of country Pakistan is going to become: a pariah state in which extremists are enabled to dominate through violence and oppression, or a progressive state in which people’s rights and freedoms are upheld and the nation’s aspirations are supported by other countries,” he said.