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In Pakistan, girl freed but blasphemy debate still stuck

Activists seeking to reform Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws had hoped this case would spur change.

Pakistan released from jail a Christian girl accused of burning Muslim religious texts and flew her to an undisclosed location by government helicopter.

“Due to the security concerns surrounding her and the family, the girl is being kept in government’s protective custody and there are plans to settle them outside Islamabad,” says Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, one of her lawyers.

The courts had approved the girl’s bail on Friday at a sum of one million rupees (equivalent to $10,500), on the grounds of her being a minor. The accusations against the girl had also lost strength when it emerged that a local cleric had planted burnt pages of the Quran in the evidence, in order to evict Christians from the locality they were living in.

Activists seeking to reform Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws had hoped this case would spur public debate and government action toward amending the laws. However, that has not happened yet, say activists, and the girl’s release may cause the spotlight to fade. 

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“Even though we are happy that the child is now reunited with her parents, I am unhappy about the public face the government put on during the ordeal. The state did not come with any long term resolve to stop the abuse of blasphemy laws, and the debate does not even seem to go in that direction,” says Peter Jacob, head of one of the largest minority rights’ activist groups in Pakistan.

The blasphemy laws, which date back to the colonial times in South Asia, were carried forward in the constitution by Pakistani authorities after the country’s independence in 1947. In the 1980s, draconian amendments to the laws by a military dictator were introduced, to the extent that anyone found guilty of committing blasphemy can be punished for life, and in severe cases, with a death sentence.

“The text of the law has problems but even if that is changed, it is the mindset of society that needs to be changed,” says Marvi Sirmed, a social activist, who has been threatened many times over her strong secular views. “Until and unless the state divorces itself from religion, and becomes secular, persecution of minorities will continue to happen,” Ms. Sirmed adds.

Religious clerics and a majority of the population in Pakistan still defend the laws, and do not tolerate any talks of reforms. Such support was underscored by the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. When Mr. Taseer publicly denounced the laws last year and supported a Christian woman facing a death sentence for blasphemy, he was assassinated in broad daylight by his own police guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Mr. Qadri is on death row now but enjoys popular support in the country and is considered as a hero by many in Pakistan.

Although some religious clerics came out in support of the minor girl, asking for the cleric to be punished, there was no talk of changing or repealing the laws by these religious lobbies.

“There should be no change in the law because otherwise people will pick up guns and resort to violence themselves. The country can become very insecure,” says Ibtisam Elahi, an Islamic scholar, who is part of a religious alliance that opposes Pakistan’s friendly relations with the United States and India.

“All laws are prone to abuse — but that does not mean they should be done away with,” Elahi adds, saying the persecution of the Christian minority in Pakistan does not exist and it is just “western media and NGO propaganda.”

Pakistan’s Christian community

Pakistan’s roughly 2.7 million Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population. The Christianity community here, both Catholic and Protestant, traces much of its roots back to missionary efforts during British rule of the Indian subcontinent. 

“In rural Punjab, a substantial proportion of the discrimination against the [Christian] community has been correlated to land grabbing,” reads a report from last year by the Jinnah Institute, a Pakistani NGO. “After some of the more serious mob attacks such as Gojra, Christian residents often did not return to their homes. Personal property and land, was in most cases, taken by local Muslim residents.” 

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Pakistan has registered nearly 1,000 blasphemy cases since 1986, with 180 of those against Christians and hundreds more against other religious minorities.

Mr. Jacob, the minority rights activist, says that the government lost the opportunity once again to engage with elements in Pakistan that are usually unwilling to listen on blasphemy law reform.

“This was the time to constitute an inquiry commission, for example, that could have sat down with those who oppose the reforms and use the girl’s case to highlight the rampant abuse of this law but that did not happen,” Jacob says.

He also says the way the girl was airlifted from the jail reflects the government’s inability to stop the violence of extremists. 

“No one wants to talk about the reforms openly. It is just a few people who are asking for it to be repealed. And they are being killed one by one. First it was Salmaan Taseer, then the minorities’ minister – Shahbaz Bhatti. Tomorrow it will be me, and one day there will be no one left to stand up against the abuse,” says Ms. Sirmed.