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By Aftab Alexander Mughal

Pope Benedict XVI’s call on Jan. 10 for Pakistan to repeal its Islamic blasphemy laws was rejected by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Jan. 11. Prime Minister Gilani once again reiterated his government’s stance that there would be no amendments to the blasphemy law.

While the pope was speaking in an annual address to diplomats he urged Pakistan to repeal contentious blasphemy laws as he called on governments worldwide to do more to enable Christians to practice their faith without violence, intolerance or restriction.

Pope’s was criticized by radical Islamic organisations in Pakistan. They term it interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan. “The Pontiff’s statement is a bid to plunge the entire world into a deadly war,” Liaquat Baloch, the General Secretary of Jamait-e-Islamic (JI) said. Baloch also wants people to learn a lesson from Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer’s murder.

Mr. Taseer, a Muslim, was killed by his own Muslim gunman on Jan. 4 in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, because of his support to poor Christian women Aasia Noreen, 45, who was awarded death sentence by a Pakistani court under controversial blasphemy laws.

Pakistan’s Christians are the descendants of Hindus or Muslims converted by missionaries. They say they are treated as second-class citizens and feel insecure for several reasons, including the blasphemy laws and regular militant attacks on their churches.

After Taseer’s assignation, the security of Noreen has been increased. Her family has gone into hiding, fearing they may be killed in the same way.

On Jan. 9, around 25,000 members of Islamic parties gathered in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with 20 million inhabitants. The speakers of the rally announced that anyone showing support for the amendments to the blasphemy laws should face the same fate as Taseer. “No officer of the law enforcement agencies or government officials including at least 3,000 members of the police, who were present at the meeting area, moved to silence them or did not take any action despite such death threat, was made in in public.” Asian Human Rights Commission observed.

Muttahida Quami Movement leader Altaf Hussain has said on Jan. 11 that neither the Muslims nor the minorities of the country could think of blaspheming the Holy Prophet (PBUH). “I appeal to religious leaders of all sects to stop their demonstrations after getting assurance from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that the blasphemy law would not be changed,” said Altaf Hussain.

In some other cities the rallies were lead and addressed by the banned Islamist group Jamaat ud Dawa but no action was taken by the state. During these rallies, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of the Governor, was declared hero.

Although after Taseer’s murder Christians have been living under constant fear, they paid tributes to Taseer during Sunday worship services throughout the country and declared him ‘Shaheed-e-Haq’. Church of Pakistan Bishop Alexander John Malik of Lahore said, “He was a voice for the oppressed section of society.” Christians are of the opinion that now the space is shrinking for liberal views in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Pakistan’s public culture is riddled with hard-line views, from the school curriculum to the TV talk shows. The Islamists also gaining much ground in the country which is moving to radicalism.

A senior journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai writes in his column on Jan. 11, “The situation has changed after Taseer’s tragic assassination. The country is more polarized than before and a dispassionate discussion on any issue, particularly those concerning religion, has become difficult and even dangerous.”

“If a bodyguard can kill a governor, a high profile person, what can happen to me?,” asked Christian activist Shahzad Kamran. Kamran has stopped visiting Bibi in jail for fear of his life, the news agency Reuter reported.

The Economist, a weekly from London, observed that religious parties do not attract much support at election time—they polled less than 5% of votes in the last ballot, in 2008.

“Over time, Pakistani society has drifted toward religious extremism,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defence analyst from Lahore. “This religious sentiment has seeped deep into government circles and into the army and police at lower levels,” Rizvi told daily the New York Times.

An extremist mind set has infiltrated state agencies, from the sensitive to the less sensitive, and the governments of the day and their large, unwieldy bureaucracies can do nothing in the face of this ideological onslaught, writes Raza Rumi in his column.
According to Reuters, Muslim prison guard Ansaar Jameel, at the Sheikhpura prison where Noreen is held, said “What happened was justified.”

The blasphemy law is bad enough in itself, but it also gives official sanction to a growing atmosphere of religious intolerance in Pakistan. “It is generally held that Islam prescribes capital punishment for those who commit blasphemy; that is, using abusive language against the Prophet of Islam. But this is quite untrue. According to Islam, blasphemy is simply a misuse of freedom and not a cognisable offence; the blasphemer is not liable to incur legal punishment,” India Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan said recently.

Ironically, leading lawyer Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan from the ruling party, PPP, said the blasphemy law should remain intact. Taseer was from the same party.

The Punjab government is reluctant to arrest Mufti Mohammad Hanif Qureshi Qadri, a Barelvi cleric from Rawalpindi, twin city of Islamabad, who is considered to be the inspirational guide of Qadri, the killer. Punjab government of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group), who has closed association with hard line Islamic groups, has released another Al Qaeda-linked militant Qari Saifullah Akhtar on Jan. 10.

After Taseer, Sherry Rehman, a Muslim member of parliament, is on the hit list because she has presented a private bill in the parliament to review the blasphemy laws. According to Daily Times, the imam of Sultan Masjid has issued a fatwa (Islamic religious decree) and another has been published in a pamphlet and distributed by the Tanzeem-e-Islami (TI) against Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Rehman, declaring her a non-Muslim and demanding death sentence for her. Around 60 Christian and Muslim organisations in Karachi condemn the threats to Rehman.

If Pakistan has to progress, it has to establish itself as a true democracy. No democracy is complete if it is not secular. Does that mean that 97 per cent Muslim Pakistanis will lose their faith? No, not at all. In a secular dispensation they are free to believe what they want. The difference is that they cannot impose their thinking or their brand of shariah on others, a Muslim intellectual Babar Ayaz believed.

Aftab Alexander Mughal is the Editor of Minorities Concern of Pakistan.

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