Pakistan Tightens Its Blasphemy Laws

February 01, 2023
Pakistan parliament building in Islamabad

The Pakistani parliament has just voted in favor of strengthening the blasphemy laws, arousing alarm among the religious minorities – including the Catholic Church – who fear that the law will be used against them.

On January 17, 2023, the National Assembly of the Islamic republic unanimously adopted the bill aimed at strengthening the sanctions for incidents of “blasphemy against Islam.”

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which can already carry the death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, can now be used to punish anyone found guilty of insulting people associated with him.

Thus, pronouncing in vain the names of the wives and family members of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions - the famous Sahaba who collected some of his words in the collection of hadiths - will land you in a prison cell for a period of three to ten years, and will cost you one million Pakistani rupees, or about four thousand euros: the equivalent of several years of work in the country.

Joseph Jansen, president of the organization Voice for Justice, a Christian organization campaigning for the rights of religious minorities, said that the approval of the amendment “will broaden the scope of application of blasphemy laws, when instead it would be necessary to introduce safeguards against their improper use.”

And he added that “blasphemy laws have allowed and encouraged discrimination and legal persecution in the name of religion.” He also stated that these laws “run counter to international human rights standards because they are applied without investigating whether the accused committed an act of blasphemy intentionally or not.”

A concern relayed by the jurist Rana Abdul Hamed who worries about a toughening of the law at a time when accusations of blasphemy have grown in the digital space, “where complaints are made even for just liking, commenting or forwarding content on social media, under the 2016 Electronic Crime Prevention Act, which has led to a further increase in the persecution of religious minorities” she explains.

For his part, the founding president of the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) Mervyn Thomas, calls on the Islamic republic to do more to protect its religious minorities, “by respecting its international obligations and guarantees enshrined in the country’s constitution.” As for the international community, it “must put pressure on the Pakistani authorities to act in this direction.”

In Pakistan, Christians represent only 1 to 2% of the population, or about 3 million people out of the country's 200 million inhabitants. Christians who are divided, more or less equally, between Catholics and Protestants.

The first known churches in the country were built by Jesuit missionaries from Portuguese trading posts in India in the 16th century. The English settlers, who came later, brought the Anglican religion with them.

As in India, Pakistani Christians often come from the lower castes, more apt to grasp the Gospel message which proclaims the equality of all citizens of the city of God. A particular sociology which also makes it possible to understand why Christians are more inclined to be despised and persecuted.

In any case, it is difficult to reverse the trend in the short term in a country where Muslim fundamentalists can count on the complacency of the authorities, who need them in order to stay in power.