The leader of the World Council of Churches is urging Pakistan’s president and prime minister to initiate measures toward the repeal of their controversial blasphemy laws, which critics say are often abused by extremists.
In his letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit recalled his organization’s past calls of concern over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which he said are “fraught with danger that can be abused by extremist groups when dealing with religious minorities.”
“It has been proven in the past that the charges of Blasphemy law appear to be arbitrarily applied and at times founded on malicious accusations against individuals and groups,” Tveit wrote in his letter, dated Friday.
“The WCC has expressed its concern in the past and many others stated the same that the introduction of Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is inimical to and destructive of the harmony and well-being of people who live together in a religiously plural society,” the WCC general secretary continued.
Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, violators can be sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for insulting another's religious feelings; life imprisonment for defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Qur'an; and death for defiling Islam or its prophets.
Notably, however, some individuals have brought charges under these laws to settle personal scores or to intimidate vulnerable Muslims, sectarian opponents, and religious minorities. Furthermore, those accused of blasphemy and their families or religious communities are occasionally attacked and threatened with death by religious extremists – even after they are acquitted of blasphemy charges.
“The misuse of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan has led to physical violence, damage, destruction of properties and loss of life within the innocent Christian minority over the years,” Tveit noted in his letter. “This is a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan.”
Tveit’s letter comes four days after two Christians accused of blasphemy in Pakistan were killed as they left a courthouse.
On Monday, masked gunmen opened fire on Pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother, Sajid Emmanuel, as police were transporting them from the court in Faisalabad to jail.
According to Compass Direct News, the brothers were expected to be exonerated soon after handwriting experts on July 14 notified police that signatures on papers denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad did not match those of the accused.
Reports said that police had brought the accused to the court of law to obtain their remand.
In commenting on the murders, Tveit said he received the news “with great dismay” and appealed to Pakistan’s leaders “to ensure immediate and necessary actions to bring to justice those who are responsible for the killing” of the Christian brothers.
“We also urge Your Excellency to initiate measures towards the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws and to secure the rights and dignity of all individuals in Pakistan society,” Tveit added before concluding.
Presently, Islam is the state religion in Pakistan, and the constitution requires that laws be consistent with Islam. Muslims make up an estimated 97 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people.