Pakistani blasphemy death penalty leaves the Church of Scotland 'deeply concerned'

AP
Christians in Pakistan are suffering as a result of the country's blasphemy laws

A ruling from Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court that the death penalty is the only acceptable punishment for blasphemy has left the Church of Scotland "deeply concerned".

Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled on December 4 that the only acceptable punishment for anyone convicted of blasphemy was the death penalty.

In response, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Lorna Hood has written open letters to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Scotland's Minister for External Affairs and International Development Humza Yousaf, and the High Commissioner of Pakistan Wajid Shamsul Hassan.

Mrs Hood pointed out that Pakistani politicians have admitted that "blasphemy laws... are being used to settle personal scores".

Pakistan's blasphemy laws criminalise defiling the Koran or defaming the Prophet Mohammed, and until now, life imprisonment was one punishment for anyone found guilty.

Between 1927 and 1986 there were only seven reported cases of blasphemy. Since 1986 though that number has skyrocketed up to 4,000 cases - an average of more than 140 cases a year.

The sudden increase began after a radical legal change that laid down harsh mandatory sentences. Anyone proven in court to have defiled a copy of the Koran received life imprisonment, and anyone found guilty of insulting or criticising the prophet Mohammed would be executed.

However, Mrs Hood warned in her letter: "The misuse of the blasphemy law is disproportionately used against non-Muslim minority faith communities."

The numbers bear this out. Since 1988 half of the people charged under this law have been non-Muslims, but non-Muslims only make up 2 per cent of the Pakistani population.

The Church of Scotland has made repeated representations to the Pakistani government on individual blasphemy cases, and has called for the blasphemy law to be repealed altogether.

The blasphemy law, Mrs Hood continued, "goes against the traditions and teachings of Islam, and is at odds with the culture of the majority of Pakistanis."

If the FSC's ruling is to be implemented, she warned that "achieving justice could be more difficult" and that "victims from minority faith communities will become even more vulnerable than at present".

The Pakistani government has until February 4 to decide whether to implement or reject the ruling.

The Methodist Church in Britain last week wrote an open letter to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in which the Reverend Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji, the current President and Vice President of the Methodist conference, wrote: "We appreciate the sensitivity of this issue, however, it is our view that an obligatory death sentence for the offence of blasphemy is an unjust response."

They pointed to the case of 14-year-old Rimsha Masih, a member of Pakistan's Christian minority who was detained in a maximum security prison for several weeks in 2012 due to false accusations that she burned pages of the Koran.

"It's hard to imagine that things could have been even worse for Rimsha and her family, but that is the reality Pakistani society is facing," said Mrs Gee.

"The only likely outcome of this reform is that the law becomes the cause of even more unjust and terrible abuses of those unable to defend themselves."

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