A Christian watchdog group is sounding alarms over two bills Pakistan’s legislature has passed that would increase penalties for blasphemy and fail to protect the rights of religious minorities, especially Christians, in the predominantly Muslim nation.
According to U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the Criminal Laws Act 2023, which Pakistan’s Senate passed on Aug. 7, increases the punishment from the current three years to life in prison if someone is found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed’s companions, wives or family members. The bill includes a stipulation that the sentence must never be less than 10 years.
When the National Assembly, the country’s lower chamber, first approved the legislation in January 2023, minority communities in Pakistan argued it could encourage the targeting of religious minorities
The other bill, the National Commission for Minorities Bill 2023, passed by the National Assembly on Aug. 7 as well, ignores the standards of the United Nations’ Paris Principles, which outline how governments should safeguard human rights, including religious freedom. It also fails to meet the standards of a 2014 Pakistan Supreme Court judgment that called for more robust protections for religious minorities, including a National Commission for Minorities’ Rights, CSW says.
Christian Solidarity President Mervyn Thomas said in a statement: “CSW is deeply disappointed by the passage of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023, given the overwhelming evidence of how the existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations. Making the blasphemy laws more stringent could inflame the situation further and is the opposite of what is needed.”
He added that the Pakistani government must listen to minority groups if it is serious about upholding religious tolerance and addressing human rights abuses. Both bills need the approval of Pakistani President Arif Alvi.
Pakistan ranks seventh on Open Doors USA’s 2023 World Watch List of the most oppressive countries for Christians. Even though the country boasts what it calls a federal parliamentary republican form of government, Christians make up a mere 1.8% of the population and face open hostility and frequent violence from Islamic hardline groups.
“Jobs that are seen as low, dirty and degrading are reserved for Christians by the authorities, who continue to push them to the margins of society,” Open Doors writes in its annual report.
Many Pakistani Christians report feeling unsafe worshipping openly in their country. Among blasphemy charges, Christians make up 25% of the accused even though they represent less than 2% of the population. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the number of Pakistani Christian girls abducted, abused and forced to convert to Islam.
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