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24 March 2011

Religious Liberty: Pakistan

Shahbaz Bhatti, a vocal critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law was shot dead on 2 March 2011. The government's only Christian, Mr Bhatti devoted his life to furthering the rights of Pakistan's minority groups, advocating human equality, religious freedom and social justice. He was assassinated for his unrelenting opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The World Evangelical Alliance said: "Minister Bhatti's assassination underscores the peril religious minorities face in Pakistan both from the blasphemy law and the culture it creates within the country." Mr Bhatti's assassination came just weeks after Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, an outspoken opponent to the blasphemy law, was also killed.   

Pakistan's blasphemy law stipulates that "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet either spoken or written, or by any imputation, directly or indirectly shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine". Blasphemy convictions are common in Pakistan although a death sentence has never been carried out by the state. Angry mobs, however, have killed many Christians accused of blasphemy after they have been released.  

Christians make up two per cent of Pakistan's population but they are not protected under the law. A Muslim may blaspheme Christians with impunity. Since 2002, the testimony of a single Muslim is sufficient to prosecute a non-Muslim on blasphemy charges. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says "the government must address both the ease with which the blasphemy laws can be abused, and the social attitudes which view it as acceptable to do so". 

Persecution to Christians does not primarily come from the state, Open Doors have reported, but deeply rooted attitudes within the population. After the devastating floods in 2010, there were even reports that Christians were discriminated against in aid distribution. In November 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian, became the first woman in Pakistan's history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. She had been arrested after rowing with a woman who refused to drink water made "unclean" by a Christian's touch. There have been Islamic parties, out on the streets threatening anarchy if she is freed, or there are any attempts to amend the blasphemy law. Shahzad Kamran from Sharing Life Ministries, who ministers to prisoners including Asia Bibi says that Christians live constantly fearful of being accused of blasphemy; and "it's very easy to make this accusation because anyone can make this accusation because of a grudge, or for revenge". 

CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas comments that "Shahbaz always said that the power of the blasphemy law lay in the social attitudes which underpinned them… his killing shows more than ever before the need for others to take up the mantle of his pioneering work".  

Open Doors have launched a campaign encouraging people to write to the Pakistani High Commissioner in London, offering condolences regarding the death of Shahbaz Bhatti and asking that special attention is given to the protection of the Christian minority at this time.