Church leaders urge govt to act against blasphemy law misuse

Propose panel comprising religious leaders to evaluate cases of forced conversion

LAHORE: The Christian leadership on Saturday expressed its deep concern over the increasing religious intolerance in society and urged the government to take immediate steps to stop the misuse of the blasphemy laws.

The concern was voiced during a meeting of the senior clergy of the Church of Pakistan at the Diocese of Raiwind head office. The meeting was chaired by Bishop Azad Marshall, who is also the president of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan.

The meeting condemned a recent incident in Karachi where a Christian staff nurse was attacked by hospital personnel over a false allegation of blasphemy and a case was registered against her under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws even though the police had earlier dismissed the accusation.

Addressing the meeting, Bishop Marshall regretted that the nurse, Tabita Nazir Gill, was slapped, beaten up and locked in a room after a co-worker accused her of blasphemy over a personal grudge.

“We are witnessing a record increase in blasphemy cases against all members of society irrespective of their faiths. The government has also admitted that a majority of such cases stem from personal vendettas, however, no concrete step has yet been taken to stop the misuse of the blasphemy law,” he said.

The bishop added that in Tabita Gill’s case, the police had cleared her of the allegation but it registered a case under pressure from a mob who were misled by the complainant. “This has become a norm here but we are glad that a lot of our Muslim brothers and sisters have spoken out against the treatment meted out to our daughter. This also shows that our people are realizing that the misuse of these sensitive laws can put any person’s life at risk.”

Marshall said that the punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death. “By contrast, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of six months in prison or a fine of only 1,000 rupees. Unless the government implements a harsher punishment for making false accusations, we fear that this trend will continue to grow,” he said.

The senior clergyman said that besides the misuse of the blasphemy law, the Christian community was also concerned over the increase in a number of cases of forced conversion and marriages of minority girls.

“We are engaging with the government on a host of issues with a special focus on blasphemy laws and forced conversions as these matters are instilling fear and a sense of insecurity in our people.

“We filed a petition in the Supreme Court on the forced conversion issue in January but it was returned with some objections. Our lawyer will resubmit it after addressing the registrar office’s concern and we hope the chief justice will fix this crucial issue for an early hearing,” he told the meeting participants.

He announced that the church was also setting up a dedicated helpline to provide legal assistance to victims of forced conversion and blasphemy laws etc. “Our mission is to provide relief to all innocent Christians regardless of their denominational affiliation. We are also planning to establish shelter homes in all major cities where the minor victims will be provided safe and secure lodging till the disposal of their court cases,” he said.

Marshall said that the church was also holding talks with government leaders and Islamic scholars to form a panel for investigating and evaluating cases of forced conversion of minor girls according to mutually agreed parameters. “This proposed panel will also prove helpful to courts in deciding these important human rights cases,” he said.

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