A petition calling for the repeal of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which impose the death sentence on a person found desecrating Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, has been handed to the office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights - writes Peter Kenny.
The signatories say the law is used to settle scores with non-Muslims and has been exploited to incite hatred and attacks against Pakistan's minority Christian community in recent times.
"These laws condemn to death any person who desecrates the Holy Qur'an," said the petition with more than 9,000 signatures. "The testimony of just one Muslim is sufficient to bring charges against the alleged culprit who is then immediately put in jail, where he often remains for months or years pending trial."
Rory Mungoven, head of the Asia-Pacific unit of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, received the petition on 14 October 2009 from a delegation of the London and Pakistan-based Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).
"Almost all charges brought under these laws are fabricated or false, and made to settle private scores," Nasir Saeed, the chairperson of the legal aid centre told Ecumenical News International.
Mungoven, who received the petition from CLAAS director, Saeed, the centre's chairperson, the Rev Alwin Samuel and Sarah Chariau, the advocacy officer for the legal aid group said, "I will pass this petition on to the High Commissioner [for Human Rights]".
He received other information from the group concerning harassment, discrimination and violence against members of religious minorities in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Mungoven said what was given to him would enable the UN to raise the issues in meetings with the government of Pakistan.
Blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death under the law of Pakistan, although nobody has been executed for it. Courts have acquitted those accused of blasphemy in more than 100 cases after overruling lower tribunals. However, some lawyers have said that non-Muslims they defended, including Christians, had been killed while awaiting trial.
The petition says, "The [Pakistan] laws in their current forms do not provide sufficient protection to alleged blasphemers whose security is endangered as well as that of his family." It notes, "The victims of these accusations are also often deprived of the right to a fair trial.
Judges and lawyers as well as any defence witnesses are threatened to death by clerics and Muslim extremists who fill up the Court during the trial."
Saeed said that as a result, many innocent victims have been sentenced for blasphemy.
"We also believe that the ramification of these laws go much further than the walls of the court. We believe that these laws generate hatred within the Pakistani community as they oppose Muslim to other religious minorities," says the petition. "By protecting Islam they also imply the right to avenge Islam for any attempt to the Prophet's name. By discriminating on the ground of religion, they create religious hatred and lead to oppression."
Back on 18 September, the Rev Shanta Premawardhana, director of Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches, addressed a meeting attended by journalists at the United Nations offices in Geneva.
At that meeting, Premawardhana noted that a statement issued by the WCC after a meeting of its main governing body in September, had urged that the Blasphemy Law be repealed. In this, the global church grouping said, "The Blasphemy Law has become a source of friction between the country's majority and minority religious communities."
The Blasphemy Law was originally introduced during the British rule in undivided India in 1860. In 1927, a new section, 295, was added to the penal code to deal with "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious belief".
"Since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, for 40 years the then existing Blasphemy Law was considered adequate and no government during that period felt the need for any changes until General Zia Ul Haq introduced a number of amendments to the Pakistan penal code at the behest of the Islamic parties in the country," said the WCC.
"The change in the orientation of the State's polices introduced by General Zia Ul Haq provided an opening to foster intolerance under the label of blasphemy. Since then, the minority Christians in Pakistan have increasingly become victims of humiliation and persecutions through false allegations made under the Blasphemy Law," the WCC statement said.
The CLAAS website is here: http://www.claas.org.uk/
The full WCC statement on blasphemy can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/yjbszha
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]