[Islamabad] Minorities in Pakistan enjoy equal human rights to other citizens and “there is no misuse of the blasphemy laws against them,” Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, a religious cleric and the Pakistani prime minister’s special representative on interfaith harmony and the Middle East, told The Media Line.
Ashrafi was responding to a report released this week by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which recommended that 12 nations remain on the list of countries of concern for religious freedom, among them Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Speaking of Pakistan, the report stated that the coalition government led by Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, which took office in mid-April 2022, had “weaponized the country’s blasphemy laws against former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet members.”
“These laws have enabled and encouraged radical Islamists to operate with impunity, openly targeting religious minorities or those with differing beliefs, including nonbelievers,” the report said. “In 2022, Pakistan’s religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate. Religious minorities were subjected to frequent attacks and threats, including accusations of blasphemy, targeted killings, lynching, mob violence, forced conversions, sexual violence against women and girls, and desecration of houses of worship and cemeteries.”
The report called on the US State Department to designate Pakistan “as a country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom and urged the US government “to impose targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights related financial and visa authorities.”
It also called on Pakistan to address radical Islamist rhetoric, hold individuals who incite or participate in vigilante violence, targeted killings, forced conversions, and other religiously based crimes accountable, and revise school textbooks, curricula, and teacher training materials “to ensure they are inclusive of minorities and do not discriminate against them.”
However, Ashrafi told The Media Line that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are not being misused.
“The blasphemy law has never been used in Pakistan for personal or political gain because the government has taken a clear stance against its misuse at every level since its inception,” he said.
“The elements involved in disinformation against Pakistan have their own secret intentions to bring the peaceful nation into contempt in the community of nations. The information being provided to the US Commission on Religious Freedom is not based on reality. I personally invite the US Commission to visit Pakistan to personally experience the nation’s religious tolerance prior to making any decisions.”
However, Ashrafi also confirmed that during his tenure as chairman of the Muslim Clerics Board of Punjab he received 12 applications against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, which he said were not entertained by him.
Although religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, the country has long confronted serious issues with religious extremism, with minorities frequently facing discrimination, persecution, and outright violence. The use and abuse of blasphemy laws, which carry a death penalty for a convicted person, to unfairly target religious minorities and personal rivals has been a delicate and contentious issue in Pakistan.
Tahir Raheel Awan, an assistant attorney general in the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi, told The Media Line: “In order to understand the blasphemy laws properly, it is imperative to realize that the Pakistani penal code also prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion [including Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism]. The blasphemy laws are not specific to the defamation of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. Any citizen of Pakistan, regardless of religion, who insults any holy personality of another religion shall be dealt with by the same laws.
“Pakistan’s top courts hear the cases under the blasphemy laws very sensibly and meticulously, and this is the reason that Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, because the majority of the accused sentenced to death have had their death sentences reversed in higher courts.”
Awan added that sometimes appellate courts would discover evidence that blasphemy cases had been made up, mostly motivated by personal or political grudges.
He also said that in 2014, following the lethal bombing of a church in Peshawar the previous year in which 85 Christians were killed, the then-chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, had ordered “a host of measures to safeguard minorities,” including setting up a national council for minorities, curbing hate speech, implementing job quotas, developing a curriculum for peace, and inculcating religious tolerance.
'No need for changes'
Peter Jacob, the executive director of the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice and chairman of the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights advocacy group, told The Media Line: “Despite the passage of almost nine years, the federal and provincial governments could not fully implement the order of the Supreme Court. The authorities failed to promptly act against violations of minority rights. The Punjab province, which is home to over 2 million Christians, scored zero for not implementing the preventive measures. Data compiled by the Center for Social Justice also shows that Lahore has been an extraordinary locus of incidents of blasphemy cases in Pakistan.”
He said that while there had been no executions in blasphemy cases, more than 75 people had been “killed by angry mobs or individuals” in recent years.
“There is an urgent need for the government to adopt specific measures and a national action plan to counter extremism, violence, and persecution of minorities,” he told The Media Line.
Israr Ahmed, a Rawalpindi-based internal security analyst, told The Media Line that the Pakistani government had endeavored to address the issue of extremism by establishing a national counter-terrorism body and adopting a national action plan to combat terrorism and extremism.
“However, these initiatives have come under fire for their inefficiency and for the government’s failure to hold extremist organizations responsible for their deeds,” he said. “A thorough and coordinated strategy that addresses the sources of religious intolerance and extremism is required to eradicate extremism in Pakistan. This includes dealing with the structural problems in the educational system, enhancing the rule of law, fostering interreligious understanding, and empowering vulnerable people.”