Churches in Pakistan will observe Tuesday 20th December as day of fasting and prayer for the repeal of the country's much-feared "blasphemy law". This legislation, introduced in 1986, has created an atmosphere of insecurity and intimidation, as the law hangs over the Christians like a "sword of Damocles".
The so-called "blasphemy law" is found in Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code. There are four parts to the law, only two of which cause problems for Christians.
The non-problematical parts are 295 and 295-A. These deal respectively with defiling places of worship or sacred objects and with outraging the religious feelings of others. The offence must be intentional or deliberate, and the maximum sentence is two years for 295 or ten years for 295-A, with the option of a fine as well or instead.
The parts of the law which cause difficulties for Christians are 295-B which was added in 1982 and 295-C which was added in 1986. Both these parts protect only Islam, rather than all religions. Section 295-C omits any requirement for the offence to be committed deliberately.
Section 295-B covers defiling, damaging or desecrating a copy of the Qur'an, which is to be punished with life imprisonment. Section 295-C is concerned with defiling the name of Muhammad, a crime which was at first punishable by death or by life imprisonment. In 1991 the life imprisonment option was removed, leaving a mandatory death sentence.
How the law is abused
Section 295-C is the most easily abused of all. The offence can be merely spoken, and there is no need to prove intent. Although there is a mandatory death sentence, there is no penalty for false accusation. So, unsurprisingly, numerous cases have been registered under this section, against Christians, Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Almost all have turned out to be malicious accusations made by someone with a personal grudge against the accused.
Why christians are more vunerable
While both Christians and Muslims suffer from accusations under 295-C, Christians are much more vulnerable because there is a tendency for both police and judiciary to give greater weight to the testimony of Muslim witnesses than that of Christian witnesses. Cases under 295-C are often a matter of one person's word against another concerning a purported conversation in the past. So if the accuser is a Muslim and the accused a Christian there tends to be a bias in favour of the accuser.
Other problems which face Christians accused under the "blasphemy law" include the fact that zealous Muslims often feel they have a religious duty to make sure that the accused is killed, no matter what the legal authorities decide. Several Christians have been murdered in this way. (A judge was also murdered, apparently for acquitting a Christian.) Even if officially found "not guilty", a Christian who has been accused of blasphemy can never return home because their life will be in danger.
Furthermore, there is a growing tendency for Muslim mobs to target not just the accused Christian individual but the whole of the local Christian community. This was seen most recently in the riots at Sangla Hill, Punjab, on 12th November 2005.
Can it be changed?
Various Pakistani governments have attempted to introduce amendments to Section 295 to make it less easily abused, but intimidation from Islamists has led to any substantive changes being abandoned.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, explains the reason why so many Pakistani Muslims will not allow this law to be changed.
"South Asian Islam places huge emphasis on the veneration of the person of Muhammad. This is why feelings run so high about the "blasphemy law", and it is so difficult to change this powerful weapon against Christians. There are calls for the introduction of such a law in Bangladesh as well. In the UK, where a large proportion of the Muslim community have their roots in South Asia, some Muslim leaders have indicated that they hope the proposed law on incitement to religious hatred will function as a blasphemy law to protect Muhammad, just like Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code."