Will Pakistani Christians Be Protected From Lynchings, Forced Conversions Under New Law?

People pray as they gather for a ceremony on Christmas eve at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, December 24, 2016.
People pray as they gather for a ceremony on Christmas eve at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, December 24, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro)

A new bill passed by the Pakistani Parliament earlier this week seeks to protect religious minorities, including Christians, from being killed in mob lynchings or endure forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages to Muslim husbands. 

The bill, Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016, is set to become law, pending presidential signature, Premier reported. 

The amendments seek to increase maximum jail sentence for inciting sectarian violence, to outlaw mass lynchings, and to punish forced conversions and forced marriages of minor girls or women, something which Christians have suffered from for many years.

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As Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, told The Christian Post, however, there is skepticism that the new set of laws are not "simply lip service."

"There are already laws that could be implemented in cases of mob violence but they are rarely enacted, and when done so fail, due to frightened witnesses absenting themselves from court," he said.

Chowdhry pointed to the recent acquittal of all 115 suspects in the burning of more than 150 houses of Christians in 2013 over alleged blasphemy of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

"It is the implementation of the laws that is the crux of the problem, with a lack of desire from police due to a rife bribery culture and animosity toward 'ritually impure' Christians," he added.

Some Christian groups have expressed hope that there will be positive change, however, such as Samuel Pyara, president of Bright Future Society.

"These measures were crucial to save our country," Pyara told Asia News. "Mob justice has become a part of people's mind-set. There was a great need to make it a punishable offense and we appreciate the government's action."

Sohail Ahmad Raza, director of the Interfaith Relations Minhaj ul Quran International, affirmed that the kidnappings and forced marriages of Christian and Hindu girls is clearly wrong.

"It is wrong morally, legally, socially as well as at a human level. Forced marriage is not allowed in Sharia law and results from illiteracy," Raza argued, adding, "Those who use mosque loudspeakers to incite hate and violence are simply insane and disturbed people."

Chowdhry told CP that some changes, such as the amendment to section 198 of the Pakistani Penal Code, do seem to provide more protections against Imams inciting hatred toward others, but again pointed out that existing laws already should have opposed violence.

"In my perception it is fear of taking on the religious leaders that is at the heart of the problem. This particular amendment might, however, force police and the courts to take action. But the sentencing and the fines seem too lenient with a maximum sentence of three years or a 500,000 rupee fine," he added.

As for the amendment to section 498B, which seeks to protect non-Muslims and children from forced marriages with harsher punishments, the BPCA chairman again did not believe it was enough to spark serious improvement.

"Considering the abuse of the existing laws I am reluctant to believe the changes will have much impact, due to prevalent immunity through systemic failures by the police and judiciary," he pointed out.

Chowdhry suggested that real action will have to be taken to improve the treatment of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, beside passing or amending bills.

"Though small gains have been made, in reality I expect the situation faced by Christians and minorities in Pakistan to change very little after these amendments have been implemented," he said.

Follow Stoyan Zaimov on Facebook: CPSZaimov

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