Pakistan Christian Cabinet member urges re-think of blasphemy law

By September 6, 2012

Pakistan (MNN) — What began as a blasphemy accusation has led to scandal and a call to re-evaluate Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs USA, says the blasphemy law is often misused by Muslims to settle personal scores with Christians. Even unproven allegations can prompt a violent public response.

"Whatever it is that you wanted to get even with them for, you can take care of that while they're locked away in prison", says Nettleton. "Even if eventually the court says, 'There was no evidence of this. This is a ridiculous charge; let this person go.' They've still lost four to seven years of their lives fighting the charges and waiting for the legal process to go forward."

Nettleton goes on to say, "The level of what it takes to get the charges filed is so small, and it really ruins somebody's life." Gospel work has been negatively impacted, too. He explains that "if you say anything negative about Mohammed, that's blasphemy. Obviously as we share the Gospel, we want to do that out of a sense of love and out of a sense of respect. But at some point, when you compare two religions, you're probably going to say something negative about Islam and about Mohammed and about the Quran. All of those things would fall under the blasphemy laws there in Pakistan."

In other words, the interpretation is loose, and yet the penalties are harsh. Convictions carry the potential of a life sentence for desecrating the Quran and the death penalty for insulting the prophet Muhammad.

The case that started the ball rolling involves a young girl, Rimsha Masih, who is developmentally disabled. She is in custody nearly three weeks after she was accused of burning pages containing verses from the Quran.

In an odd twist to the case, Nettleton says, "The mullah at her local mosque: apparently now there are witnesses who say he put the burned pages in her stuff and then took the stuff to the police and said, 'This is Rimsha's stuff.' She's been burning pages from a Quran'."

Investigating authorities found the motive revealing. "Apparently now, it was all a set up by him to try to get the Christians out of the village or create animosity by the Muslims toward the Christians. So that evidence coming on top of the questions that were already there because of her age, or because of her mental capacity, is really giving some momentum to this idea of 'this is really a black eye for the entire country to have these laws on the books.'" With that evidence, the cleric was arrested for tampering with evidence. Activists hope to use the case to stop the abuse of Pakistan's strict laws on insulting Islam.

As a result of the turn of events, activists hope Masih could be released as early as tomorrow. According to Open Doors News, Rimsha Masih is likely to be cleared of the blasphemy charge against her, but Nettleton says the family's life is changed. "Even if she is released on Friday and is returned to her family, there is still an issue of safety for them that we can pray about and pray for."

Police put the girl in jail both to placate angry demonstrators and to keep Rimsha safe from attack. Her parents likewise were removed to protective custody, while hundreds of Christian neighbors fled to the relative safety of more distant Islamabad sectors.

Paul Bhatti is the Minister for National Harmony, and the only Christian on the cabinet. He is calling for a re-evaluation of how the law is enforced. His brother and predecessor Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down last year for speaking out against the blasphemy law.

However, Nettleton says the circumstances now are different. "The fact that someone has suggested reforming the blasphemy law is not a new thing. What will be interesting to see–especially in light of this mullah being arrested–is if this gains any traction within the legislative process there and if there is really some practical change for the Christians in Pakistan."

Pray for justice, as it relates to the blasphemy law. This is a unique opening to change laws that are unfair. "Pray for the Christian community there, regardless of what happens with the government or what happens with the blasphemy laws, that they will continue to focus on Christ and be a witness for Him in spite of whatever laws are on the books or whatever persecution comes their way."

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