Letter to Pakistani High Commission expresses dismay at blasphemy law reform

The Methodist president and vice-president have expressedgrave concern over potential reforms to Pakistan's controversialblasphemy law. The Revd Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji have voicedtheir fears in a letter to the Pakistani High Commission and theBritish Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

The blasphemy law was radically changed in the 1980s toimpose life imprisonment for defiling a copy of the Qur'an anddeath for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. In 1988Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide inprotest against the laws; and although no one has yet beenexecuted, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have beenfiled. The number of cases (against both Muslims and Christians)has increased in recent years, resulting in long prison terms, bothon remand and under sentence. Cases are often brought to settlepersonal scores or target the vulnerable.

On 4 December 2013, Pakistan's Federal Sharia Court madean order to make the death penalty the only lawful punishment forblasphemy, removing the possibility of imprisonment as analternative. Many fear that such a reform would serve to increasethe persecution of Christians and other minority groups.

The government has until 4 February to either amend thePenal Code or appeal the order. 

In August 2012, fourteen year old Rimsha Masih wasdetained in a maximum security prison for several weeks beforebeing forced to flee the country because she had been falselyaccused of burning pages of the Koran. 

"It's hard to imagine that things could have been evenworse for Rimsha and her family, but that is the reality Pakistanisociety is facing," said Ruth. "The only likely outcome of thisreform is that the law becomes the cause of even more unjust andterrible abuses of those unable to defendthemselves." 

The text of the letter, which has also been sent to theBritish Foreign and Commonwealth Office follows:

We write on behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain, oneof the largest Free Church denominations in the UK with around230,000 members. The Methodist Church regards itself as along-standing friend of Pakistan and its people and we would liketo take the opportunity to extend to you our warmestgreetings.

We are writing to express our concern about the FederalShariah Court's order, made on 4th December 2013 in relation to theblasphemy law in Section 295 of the Penal Code.

The Methodist Church desires that all faiths and allfaithful people are treated with honour and respect and has no wishto defend blasphemy.  We have very valuable relationships withother faiths both within our local communities and through nationalorganisations such as the Christian Muslim Forum in the UK andpartners in Pakistan. We appreciate the sensitivity of this issue,however, it is our view that an obligatory death sentence for theoffence of blasphemy is an unjust response.

We realize that the Government may need to make a responsein the next few weeks and we hope and pray that it will feel ableto resist this move.

We think many of us, both within and without Pakistan,recognize that there has been considerable misuse of the blasphemylaws in recent years. Minorities and vulnerable people have beentargeted and personal scores have been settled, quite contrary tothe real intention of the law.

Naturally our concerns are not only for Christians inPakistan. It is clear that several minorities have suffered due toprosecutions brought under the law in Section 295.  If thisorder is accepted by the government, achieving justice for thoseaccused of blasphemy will be an even more difficulttask.

May we respectfully ask you to make known the deep anxietyof the Methodist Church in Britain on this matter. 

With our grateful thanks and very best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Revd Ruth Gee
President of the Methodist Conference

Dr Daleep Mukarji
Vice-President of the Methodist Conference