Pakistan (MNN) — Despite claims of vote rigging, Pakistan's Nawar Sharif is setting an aggressive agenda for his term as Prime Minister.
He's the first to be a three-term Prime Minister, his last period in office ending 14 years ago in a military coup. Sharif inherits a government fraught with challenges: economy, terrorism, and foreign relations with the West. Spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA Todd Nettleton says at first blush, "The good news here is that a duly-elected government of Pakistan is about to hand over power to another duly-elected civilian government in Pakistan. That's the first time that that has happened."
Additionally, initial results show that the Muslim League (Nawaz), of which Sharif is head, leads in 114 constituencies out of 272. Sharif is seen as a fiscal conservative, leaning heavily toward free market economics and deregulation. However, Nettleton suggests that as far as religious freedom goes, things aren't likely to change much. "It's hard to see a situation where there is just a huge dramatic change on the issue of religious freedom, on the issue of the blasphemy laws there just because he's been in power before. If he wanted those kinds of changes, you would have thought that he would have made some moves toward them when he was in power last time."
Elections in Egypt ushered in the Muslim Brotherhood, which introduced a more Sharia-friendly government–much to the dismay of believers. With the Muslim League apparently coming into power, the comparison between Egypt's changes and Pakistan's upcoming adjustments seem obvious. However, on that point, Nettleton demurs. "I don't think it's as overtly Islamic as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but it's hard to say, once they get into power, who's making the decisions. Those will be things that we'll be watching."
One thing does seem unlikely: changes to the blasphemy law that has given Christians no end of trouble, says Nettleton. "It's hard to imagine a government there who would anger the radical elements within Pakistani society by really making a concerted effort to change the blasphemy law or even to modify it."
In 1860, offenses relating to religion were first codified by India's British rulers. They were then expanded in 1927. Pakistan inherited these laws after the partition of India in 1947, and they remain firmly entrenched in the penal code.
Despite its infringement of the constitution, Sharia law is increasingly applied, even to Christians and Hindus–especially in areas where Islamist groups have control or influence. Many Pakistani Christians have been falsely accused under the Blasphemy Law, or Law 295. Law 295a, blaspheming Islam, and Law 295b, blaspheming the Qur'an, are criminal offenses. Law 295c makes blaspheming Mohammed a crime punishable by death.
Accordingly, "Christians in Pakistan are such a tiny minority that they always watch with a lot of caution what the government is doing and what direction things are going," says Nettleton, and with good reason: Pakistan ranks 14th on the Open Doors World Watch List. It's a compendium of the top 50 countries in the world known for their persecution of Christians.
Pray that Christians in Pakistan will have a bold testimony to those around them. Pray for protection for Christians facing intimidation and threats. One more thing, adds Nettleton: "I think we need to pray for this new government as well. We need to pray that they will stand for minority rights, that they will stand for religious freedom and will protect the rights of Christians and the rights of others to be a part of Pakistani society."