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March 19, 2013

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Continue to be Toxic

Last week, a Pakistani Christian, Sawan Masih, was accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. The following days,a Muslim crowd of several thousand, gathered in mobs and attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, setting fire to over 150 houses, 18 shops, and two churches. This case of blasphemy is, tragically, representativeand follows a clear and well-established pattern.

As is often the case, allegations of blasphemy cause outbreaks of violence; it has become commonplace for mobs to take the law into their own hands. Following blasphemy allegations, angry crowds descend on towns and burn places of worship and homes, injuring residents.

Secondly, blasphemy laws in Pakistan are known to be used as a weapon to settle private disputes. Accusations of blasphemy are often the by-product of disputes between neighbors, colleagues, political opponents, religious and academic leaders, and business associates whose dealings have become adversarial. In this case, the police believe the blasphemy allegations stemmed from a private dispute between Masih and another man, Shahid Imran. Given the severity of the punishment provided under Pakistan’s penal code, the ease with which one may initiate a proceeding raises serious concerns of due process and the right to a fair trial.

Finally, this case underscores how the Christian minority in Pakistan is frequently targeted. As soon as a member of the Christian community is accused of blasphemy, it has become the norm for the whole community to flee the neighborhood out of fear of a backlash. That’s because the laws perpetuate prejudice and promote religious intolerance.

And yet, despite the pattern, something this time was different.

During this round of violence, the Pakistanis have been more vocal than usual. Authorities sent signals to Pakistanis that they cannot resort to violence and riot against a religious minority, in the name of the blasphemy law.  Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered an immediate inquiry into the attack and an investigation into the violence. The police arrested about 150 people accused of burning dozens of homes of Christians. The provincial law minister Rana Sanullah said that the government would not spare those involved in the attack.

Most importantly, it is promising that Christian groups are starting to speak out, in refusal to be intimidated by the mobs. Members of the Christian community publicly protested and called on the government to help rebuild destroyed houses. It’s courageous to rally this way when their lives are threatened.

Their demands must be addressed if the government wants to act beyond its condemnations.