The Methodist president and vice-president have expressed grave concern over potential reforms to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law. The Rev Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji have voiced their fears in a letter to the Pakistani High Commission and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The blasphemy law was radically changed in the 1980s to impose life imprisonment for defiling a copy of the Qur'an and death for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide in protest against the laws; and although no one has yet been executed, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have been filed.
The number of cases (against both Muslims and Christians) has increased in recent years, resulting in long prison terms, both on remand and under sentence. Cases are often brought to settle personal scores or target the vulnerable.
On 4 December 2013, Pakistan's Federal Sharia Court made an order to make the death penalty the only lawful punishment for blasphemy, removing the possibility of imprisonment as an alternative. Many fear that such a reform would serve to increase the persecution of Christians and other minority groups.
The government has until 4 February to either amend the Penal Code or appeal the order.
In August 2012, fourteen year old Rimsha Masih was detained in a maximum security prison for several weeks before being forced to flee the country because she had been falsely accused of burning pages of the Koran.
"It's hard to imagine that things could have been even worse for Rimsha and her family, but that is the reality Pakistani society is facing," said Ruth Gee. "The only likely outcome of this reform is that the law becomes the cause of even more unjust and terrible abuses of those unable to defend themselves."
The text of the letter, which has also been sent to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office follows:
em>We write on behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain, one of the largest Free Church denominations in the UK with around 230,000 members. The Methodist Church regards itself as a long-standing friend of Pakistan and its people and we would like to take the opportunity to extend to you our warmest greetings.
We are writing to express our concern about the Federal Shariah Court's order, made on 4th December 2013 in relation to the blasphemy law in Section 295 of the Penal Code.
The Methodist Church desires that all faiths and all faithful people are treated with honour and respect and has no wish to defend blasphemy. We have very valuable relationships with other faiths both within our local communities and through national organisations such as the Christian Muslim Forum in the UK and partners in Pakistan. We appreciate the sensitivity of this issue, however, it is our view that an obligatory death sentence for the offence of blasphemy is an unjust response.
We realize that the Government may need to make a response in the next few weeks and we hope and pray that it will feel able to resist this move.
We think many of us, both within and without Pakistan, recognise that there has been considerable misuse of the blasphemy laws in recent years. Minorities and vulnerable people have been targeted and personal scores have been settled, quite contrary to the real intention of the law.
Naturally our concerns are not only for Christians in Pakistan. It is clear that several minorities have suffered due to prosecutions brought under the law in Section 295. If this order is accepted by the government, achieving justice for those accused of blasphemy will be an even more difficult task.
May we respectfully ask you to make known the deep anxiety of the Methodist Church in Britain on this matter.
With our grateful thanks and very best wishes,
Rev Ruth Gee
President of the Methodist Conference
Dr Daleep Mukarji
Vice-President of the Methodist Conference