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06 July 2011

Minority takes on might of an old empire

Minority takes on might of an old empire

In spite of an international outcry to two assassinations and the wrongful arrest of a mother of five, Pakistan's blasphemy laws remain unchanged.

But the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), which represents a minority within a minority, has not given up hope.

On Saturday (2 July) the BPCA hosted its third annual peaceful demonstration in London calling on the UK government to press its Pakistani counterpart into changing its blasphemy laws.

The BPCA says Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws have been used as a tool for oppression and an opportunity to settle personal vendettas between tribes and families. They're asking that the laws are revised so that they can better protect people of all faiths and in particular those of minority religious groups such as Christians.

In the first protest of its kind, Britain's Pakistanis enlisted support from leaders of Britain's Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities.

The British Pakistani Christian Association that represents Britain's estimated 8,174 Pakistani Christians, of whom half are Roman Catholic, was supported by the South Asian Forum, a group set up last year as part of the Evangelical Alliance to represent Britain's growing community of South Asian Christians.

Manoj Raithatha, national co-ordinator for SAF, said: "Although the British Pakistani Christian community is so small and scattered, we look forward to the day of seeing a change in the blasphemy laws. It's a scandal that nothing has changed in Pakistan and extremists continue to have the stronghold."

At the rally petitions bearing some 6,000 names were handed into 10 Downing Street and the Pakistan High Commission Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge. These were gathered by the BPCA and from the Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted Christians.

In spite of there only being 300 people (that coincided with the hugely publicised Gay Pride parade), the speakers themselves lent to the weight of the cause. They included The Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, former bishop of Rochester, who is himself a Pakistani Christian; Dr Martin Stern, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and former medical student at Peshawar University; along with Imam Dr Taj Hargey, of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford.

Also present was Ranbir Singh for the Hindu Human Rights Group, Upkar Rai of the British Sikh Council and a representative from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien has publicly attacked the UK government's plans to increase its aid to Pakistan without a condition to amend controversial blasphemy laws.

In March, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani government's cabinet, was shot dead by gunmen in Islamabad.  Two months previously Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab region was assassinated by his bodyguard for opposing blasphemy laws.

Since the governor's death, his daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, has been calling on the international community to lobby her government to reform the madrassas (Koran schools) and allow greater democracy in Pakistan.

Taseer, a journalist for Newsweek Pakistan, who describes herself as a civil society activist, warned that the death of Osama bin Laden has stirred up extremist sentiment in the already troubled nation.

In May she told the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based Muslim think tank that opposes extremism, "Repressive mindsets have been allowed to flourish. The state has abdicated its responsibility, and hate mongers have been given a platform. My father's death has highlighted how grave the situation is, but blasphemy cases are still on the rise."

Meanwhile Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy in the Punjab province of Pakistan earlier this year, remains under arrest.