Anglican Head: Pakistan Needs to Debate Blasphemy Laws

The government of Pakistan and much of the population there are being blackmailed by religious extremists who are uninterested in justice for all, said Anglican leader Dr. Rowan Williams.

And "this must not be allowed to happen," he asserted.

In a statement Monday, published in U.K.'s The Times, Williams made the observation that Pakistan was headed down the "catastrophic road" where political and factional murder becomes almost routine.

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Last week's assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's minister for minorities and the only Christian cabinet member, is evidence of that, he noted.

"[T]o those who recognize something truly dreadful going on in their midst – to the majority in Pakistan who have elected a government that, whatever its dramatic shortcomings, is pledged to resist extremism – we have surely to say, 'Do not imagine that this can be 'managed' or tolerated,'" the Archbishop of Canterbury stated.

He asserted the need for more, including Muslim thinkers, to speak out against the "inhuman pseudo-religious tyranny" being promoted by extremists.

Pakistan's founding vision, he noted, was one in which non-Muslims enjoyed civic securities and liberties. While created as a consciously Muslim state, the vision was to provide for the rights of its minorities, Williams pointed out.

Thus, "the disdain shown for that vision by Bhatti's killers is an offense against Islam as much as against Christianity in Pakistan," he maintained.

Unfortunately, many are afraid when it comes to speaking out against the extremists and in defense of the original vision, Williams lamented.

"The widespread and deep desire for Pakistan to be what it was meant to be, for justice to be guaranteed for all, and for some of the most easily abused laws on the statute book to be reviewed is being paralyzed by the threat of murder," he said.

What needs to take place, he asserted, is a rational debate in Pakistan "about the blasphemy laws that are at the root of much of this."

The controversial blasphemy laws provide the death penalty for defiling Islam or its prophets; life imprisonment for defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran; and 10 years' imprisonment for insulting "another's religious feelings."

Some, however, have used the laws to settle personal scores or to intimidate religious minorities. Essentially, as Bhatti told France24 earlier, the laws have been used as "a tool of victimization."

Williams noted, "Most Muslim thinkers are embarrassed by supposedly 'Islamic' laws in various contexts that conceal murderous oppression and bullying. Their voices are widely noted; they need to be heard more clearly in Pakistan, where part of the problem is the weakening of properly traditional Islam by the populist illiteracies of modern extremism."

Moreover, there needs to be credible proof that the government of Pakistan will resist blackmail and further assess realistically the levels of risk under which minority communities live, the Anglican leader emphasized.

Realistically, Bhatti, who called for an amendment to the country's blasphemy laws, was not protected by the government he served, Williams pointed out.

The question is, "How many minority Christian communities, law-abiding, peaceful and frequently profoundly disadvantaged, are similarly not protected by their government?"

"It is heartbreaking to see those we count as friends living with the threat of being coerced and menaced into silence and, ultimately, into a betrayal of themselves. This must not be allowed to happen. They need to know of the support of Christians and others outside Pakistan for their historic and distinctive vision."

Bhatti was shot last Wednesday in his car in broad daylight as he was leaving his mother's home in Islamabad. Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for killing the Christian minister. Though he was well aware of death threats, he continued to speak up for the rights of minorities, often pointing to the example that Jesus Christ set on the cross.

Bhatti was the second high-level government official to be murdered within the past three months. In January, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was killed by his own bodyguard for criticizing the blasphemy laws.

According to Open Doors, on average, one Christian is murdered every month in Pakistan.

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