Pakistan (MNN) — Pakistan is considering blasphemy law reforms.
The last time a lawmaker messed with the law, he was assassinated. In 2008, Salman Taseer, the 26th governor of Punjab province, advocated for Asia Bibi’s release from jail. She is the Christian woman who faces the death penalty for apostasy and was convicted under the blasphemy law.
Not only did Taseer advocate her release, he also said the President would annul her death sentence.
The announcement triggered mass protests. Imams in the local mosques accused Taseer of defying Mohammed. In early 2011, Taseer’s security guard assassinated him. What has changed in four years? Bruce Allen of Forgotten Missionaries International credits international pressure.
The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted the gravity of religious freedom violations and called for the country to be designated a country of particular concern (CPC). That might have given the country’s legislators the push they needed. Allen says, “Pakistan wants to be a member of the world community. Lawmakers finally did draft this bill to revise the current blasphemy laws, to kind of get rid of some of the very easy abuses.”
Though the constitution guarantees religious freedom, Christians increasingly suffer under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. One law stipulates that any person who defiles the name of the prophet Muhammad or the Quran may be punished by life in prison or death.
The problem, say the Christians, is that the laws are loosely written and open to a wide interpretation. Accusations settle scores between feuding neighbors. The accused have little hope of defending themselves because the charge of blasphemy by a Muslim usually serves as sufficient evidence of the crime.
Attempts at tightening the language of the laws have been on and off since 2000. When the reform issue gained worldwide attention in 2010–2011 after Asia Bibi’s sentencing, Islamist political parties lobbied to keep the laws intact. Yet lawmakers are facing the issue once more.
What they have is the draft of a bill that tightens up the loopholes. Allen cautions against premature celebration. “It’s not been signed into law yet. According to the rules of the Pakistani senate, the bill has to pass through three different readings by the lawmakers before being voted upon.”
Although it’s a step forward, Allen says the bill has a long way to go yet. Because it deals with matters pertaining to the Islamic religion itself, any member of the senate may raise an objection that the bill is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam,” he explains. “So, if any one of the members raise that objection, then the Senate may, by a motion approved by not less than 2/5 of the total membership, refer the question to the Islamic council of ideology.” From there, the council considers this question: “What we’re doing to the law, in reforming it, is it going against Islam?”
Meanwhile, the inter-religious tensions are worsening. FMI considers persecution part and parcel of their training. Allen explains, “We take them back to Scripture, even in any of the ongoing training sessions that we have with the pastors. We’re reminding them, ‘This is your responsibility to the people that you’re a shepherd for. Take them back to Scripture.'”
Through partnerships and friendships, church leaders are able to keep working despite increasing stressors. Allen says encouragement from other followers of Christ (like you) makes a difference. “It happened today with some of the e-mails that we received from Mission Network News listeners of the prayers that they are praying for their brothers and sisters in a place like Pakistan or other countries in which we serve, and we share that with them.”