An international hearing sponsored by the World Council of Churches called on Pakistan to end abuse of the nation's blasphemy law, which leads to major human rights violations for religious minorities.
A communiqué issued by the group on Sept. 19 called on the Pakistani government to “constitute a competent Inquiry Commission immediately to look into the tragic consequences of the blasphemy law and suggest a way out of this difficult and embarrassing situation.”
“Tinkering with procedural amendments” has failed to solve the problems surrounding “a law that is inherently susceptible to abuse,” it said.
At a three-day public hearing with participants from a variety of faith backgrounds, speakers examined the blasphemy law that is included in the Pakistan Penal Code.
That law, as amended in the 1980s, has been criticized for its vague wording and arbitrary enforcement, leading to mob violence as well as the death penalty for those found guilty of defaming the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.
The hearing, held Sept. 17-19 in Geneva, Switzerland, was organized by the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
Mohammad Tahseen, human rights activist and director of the South Asia Partnership in Pakistan, delivered the keynote address, arguing that continued abuse of the blasphemy law is incompatible with “the vision of Pakistan as a moderate and democratic country.”
He stressed the importance of the international community in supporting “the values of democracy and people’s struggles in Pakistan.”
Bishop Samuel Azariah, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, encouraged the government to consider repealing the controversial blasphemy law, which he said creates an atmosphere of fear for religious minorities.
“A majority of the cases have proved to be false, which has disturbed the fabric of trust in our society,” he said.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law made headlines in August when a young girl with Down Syndrome was arrested for allegedly burning pages from the Quran. Faced with international attention, the girl was released on bail, but had to be taken to a secret location amid fears for her safety.
On Sept. 21, declared by the Pakistani government to be “Love for the Prophet Day,” violent protests erupted throughout the country, continuing several days of protests over the American-made internet film, “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Although the government encouraged peaceful demonstrations, crowds of more than 10,000 clashed violently with police in cities throughout the country, calling for the film’s maker to be killed.
According to the Associated Press, the violence throughout the country left at least 17 dead and more than 100 injured.
Violent protests have broken out in more than a dozen other Muslim countries in recent days as well, with angry crowds protesting the movie as well as the U.S. government’s failure to ban it due to First Amendment free speech protections.
The Pakistani government has banned access to YouTube in the country to prevent the video from being seen, and Pakistani prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf called on the international community to enact legislation banning insults of Muhammad.
Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, argued that “it is high time that the international community should address this issue with urgency.”
“Reports from Pakistan reveal the fact that repression, intolerance, and fear have become the order of the day in many parts of the country,” he observed, warning that the misuse of the law is “used to target different minority communities” in the country.
The public hearing coincided with the 21st Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council and included a side event at that gathering. Speakers emphasized the importance of free speech and the critical role of religious leaders in preventing abuse of the laws.
“When the state and constitution make preference on the basis of religion, they end up violating the rights of their citizens,” said Peter Jacob, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace for the Catholic Church in Pakistan.
“The discrimination we find in the constitution and state policies translates into extremism and general intolerance in the society,” he explained.