Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws to be Spotlighted As It Seeks New Seat on U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | August 23, 2012 | 4:33am EDT

Non-Muslim minority Pakistanis demonstrate against the blasphemy laws and other abuses, in Lahore on Saturday, August 11 2012 (Photo: Human Rights Focus Pakistan)

( – Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and the plight of its non-Muslim minorities will be in the spotlight next month when an international church body convenes a high-profile hearing in Geneva on the subject.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has timed the event to coincide with a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, located in the same Swiss city.

Pakistan has been a member of the U.N.’s top human rights body ever since it was established in 2006, and it is running for a new, four-year term when the U.N. “elects” new members on November 12. It is virtually guaranteed a seat, since the Asian group has submitted a closed slate of candidates, meaning there will be no contest.

As leader of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on the council, Islamabad has spearheaded the Muslim bloc’s drive against “religious defamation,” a concept critics say is an attempt to extend blasphemy-type restrictions beyond the Islamic world.

Now it will find its own blasphemy provisions at center stage.

Just days ago, in the latest of many incidents over recent years, a young girl with Down syndrome was arrested in a slum near Islamabad after enraged Muslims accused her of burning pages of the Qur’an. President Asif Ali Zardari called for the Interior Ministry to provide a report on the incident, but appeals for the girl – known as Rimsha and aged around 11 – to be released have been unsuccessful.

Hundreds of Christians living in the same area, Meherabadi, have since fled in fear of their lives.

Under Pakistan’s penal code, desecrating the Qur’an or insulting Mohammed are offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment. Opponents say the laws have long been misused to target vulnerable non-Muslim minorities.

The WCC says its event in Geneva will “be in solidarity with religious minorities in Pakistan who are victimized in the name of its controversial blasphemy law.”

“The public hearing aims to heighten discussions at international levels on the deteriorating situation of the human rights of minorities in Pakistan and misuse of blasphemy law, through which the death sentence was made mandatory for blaspheming,” said Mathews George Chunakara, director of the WCC’s international affairs commission.

“The international hearing will also create a platform to address the concerns of persecuted religious minorities to make their voices heard in the international arena and particularly at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council,” he said.

Pakistanis gather outside the locked house of a Christian girl, accused of violating blasphemy laws by desecrating the Qur'an, near Islamabad on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Accusations that Rimsha had desecrated a Qur’an sparked calls by Muslim clerics over mosque loudspeakers late last week for the girl to be burned alive, according to the Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC). It says after police refused to hand her over, a mob began to torch Christian homes in Meherabadi, and hundreds fled.

The PCC says some of those abandoned homes have since been looted by their owners’ Muslims neighbors.

PCC president Nazir Bhatti said the affair revealed the complete failure of the administration in Islamabad, despite authorities’ claims that Christians were returning home and the situation reverting to normal.

Barnabas Fund, a charity working with Christians in Islamic societies, says it is providing food aid to some of the hundreds of Christians who fled from the “vitriolic and violent reaction of the Muslim community.”

“After Friday prayers [on Aug. 17] Muslim residents took an oath in the mosque, determining to drive Christians out of the area,” it reported. “The mullahs issued an ultimatum giving Christians a month to leave; Muslim residents agreed that shopkeepers would refuse to sell groceries and other essentials to Christians, and that Muslim landlords would end tenancy agreements with them.”

Barnabas said some of the fleeing Christians were staying with relatives while others were being accommodated temporarily at churches elsewhere in the capital.

“The targeting and treatment of this young, disabled girl is truly deplorable and thoroughly inhumane,” said the organization’s international director, Patrick Sookhdeo. “On the basis of a flimsy and false allegation under a law that should not even exist, this vulnerable young life, and those of her entire Christian community, have been ravaged.”

A Pakistani national women’s rights group, Women’s Action Forum, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the arrest of Rimsha.

It also slammed those who had lodged the complaint against the girl, noting it had taken place on the last Friday of Ramadan – an act the forum said “violated the sanctity” of the Muslim fast month.

The organization urged the federal government to release Rimsha and move her in secrecy to a place of safety, drop all charges against her, provide her with legal assistance and social trauma counseling, and take all steps necessary to protect the lives and property of Christians in the area.

“We hang our heads in utter shame at the treatment our minorities, particularly Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis, are receiving at the hands of both Islamist extremists and government functionaries, whose fundamental duty is to protect their life, property, honor and dignity,” it said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in response to queries that the blasphemy laws issue “is part of our ongoing dialogue with the government of Pakistan and has been for some time.”

“We have a regular dialogue with the government of Pakistan on a whole range of issues, including protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights, and we’ll continue to do so,” she said.

As reported last year, an initiative within the ruling Pakistan People’s Party to amend the blasphemy laws fizzled out after two senior politicians who spoke out against the measures were assassinated for their stance and others received death threats.

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