Around the world, one Christian in every seven lives in a condition of persecution, with almost 300 million people being discriminated against for their specific beliefs. The XIVth Report on Religious Freedom of “Aid to the Church in Need” shows that Christians, the most persecuted religious community, are in a distressing situation which has worsened during the period 2016 – 2018.
Sixty-one percent of the world’s population lives in countries where there is no respect for religious freedom. There is significant documentation of discrimination taking place in nine percent of countries around the world, and reports of persecution in eleven percent of countries. One of the places where religious freedom is least protected is undoubtedly Pakistan, which is 5th in the Ranking of the “World Watch List 2019”. This annual report, published by Open Doors, a non-government organisation (NGO) focused on helping persecuted Christians, reviewed the state of Christians’ religious freedom around the world and presented a snapshot of the top 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted.
Member of Italian Chamber of Deputies Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedone spoke out against the atrocities taking place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the Italian Parliament on 9th July 2019. He presented the Italian Parliament’s Commission on Foreign Affairs with a resolution on the protection of Christians in Pakistan. His resolution came shortly after a press hearing in the parliamentary chambers where testimonies were given by Italian Member of the European Parliament, Fulvio Martusciello and Former President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Henri Malosse, alongside NGO SOS Christians of the Orient, Pakistani Christian, and advocate Dr Paul Bhatti, which informed the media of the untenable situation for Christians in Pakistan. Dr Paul Bhatti spoke about his brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, who was killed on March 2, 2011. Militants in Pakistan had targeted him for his denigration of the country’s blasphemy laws. On hearing such evidence Deputy Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedone prepared a resolution to call on the Italian government to implement measures to prevent further persecution.
The resolution recounts how Pakistan was created as a secular state until in 1956 when its name was changed to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Pakistan means “land of the pure”: the word is a neologism that combines the terms pāk, “pure” and -stan, which means country in Urdu. Since then, Pakistan has assumed a clearly Islamist orientation, especially under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, who was in power from 1977 to 1988, and during which time Islamic law (shari’a) acquired a predominant role within the Pakistani legal system.
In Pakistan, the legal instrument of choice for the discrimination and persecution of religious minorities is the so-called “blasphemy” law, regulated by the Pakistani Penal Code. The law came into force in 1986 and severely restricts freedom of religion and expression. In extreme cases, it provides for the death sentence. The hidden objective of this law is to prevent Christianity from spreading. In everyday life, this law is often used as a tool to persecute religious minorities because it does not require the burden of proof for accusations to be laid.
According to data provided by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a body of the Pakistani Catholic Church, from 1987 to the end of 2017 there were 1,534 people accused of blasphemy. Of these, 774 are Muslims, 501 Ahmadis (an Islamic minority), 219 Christians, 29 Hindus and 11 from other faiths. There are currently 187 cases of Christians accused of having profaned the Koran or defamed Mohammed.
For the moment, no one sentenced to death for blasphemy has been executed in Pakistan. The first woman sentenced to death by law was Asia Bibi in 2010. For those accused, the period of incarceration is also made worse by the fear that they, the ‘blasphemers’, will be attacked by other prisoners and therefore spend much of their time in isolation. In many cases people who are accused under the blasphemy law are ambushed, attacked, and sometimes even murdered, by Islamic extremists after being released. According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies, since 1990 at least 65 people, including judges and lawyers, have been lynched or murdered on suspicion of blasphemy or for defending people accused of the crime.
The acquittal of Asia Bibi was a historic moment for Christians and for all religious minorities in Pakistan. However, the question of the so-called anti-blasphemy law and, in particular, the abuse of it, remains an open question. In recent years, Pakistani society has undergone a very clear process of Islamisation. Various attempts by governments to combat inter-religious violence, prevent discrimination against non-Muslims and reform or define the limits of the law have not been very successful.
When Christians are accused of alleged blasphemy, all Christians in the area are indicted. The result is an increasingly widespread sense of insecurity that pushes Pakistani religious minorities to leave the country. The numbers in this regard are clear: in 1947 the minorities in the country reached 30% of the population. In 1998 the percentage fell to 3%.
Christians will not be safe as long as there is a law on blasphemy. This law erases religious freedom, freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. Today, a Christian in Pakistan not allowed to say that Jesus is the son of God as that statement would be seen as a declaration the Mohammed is a false prophet.
The right to religious freedom is protected by, among others, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is understood as the right of every individual to freedom to change religion or belief, to manifest, alone or in community, whether in public or in private, his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance of rites. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has signed and ratified this convention, yet continues to violate it. The resolution presented by Deputy Delmastro Delle Vedone commits the Italian Government to call on the Pakistani Government to abolish the blasphemy law and to suspend the disbursement of financial aid and contributions to Pakistan until the conditions of religious minorities have improved. Furthermore, the Italian Government should adopt every useful initiative, including legislation, to include effective respect for religious freedom among the requirements for the granting of aid to third countries, and ensure, through agreements with third countries, that part of the economic aid destined for states, where freedom of religion is not fully guaranteed, is allocated to specific projects that favour emancipation, access to education, professional training and housing for religious minorities.