Advocates International Joins Many in the International Community Urging Pakistan to End the Violence and Religious Persecution

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11  Advocates International joined many in the international community today, including the Jubilee Campaign USA, urging Pakistan to end the mob violence and religious persecution caused by its blasphemy and other so-called 'defamation of religion laws'.

Advocates' General Counsel, Sam Casey, said: As Pakistan marks Minorities Day, we call on the government to take meaningful action to protect religious minorities which have increasingly been the target of religiously-motivated attacks and persecution. It is our hope and commitment to work with the Pakistani government and the civil society and legal organizations on the ground in the hard work of preserving the rule of law while protecting the religious liberties of all Pakistanis."

The rise in attacks against religious minorities comes against a backdrop - and in tandem - with rising religious extremism in the country. Advocates International is concerned at the discrimination, harassment and attacks against all religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians, Shiite, Sikhs and Hindus, that are widespread in Pakistan and too often accomplished with either impunity or injury to law enforcement officials

Advocates International applauds the conciliatory statement by Pakistan's Federal Minister for Minorities, Sahbaz Bhatti, that "the decision has been taken not only to show solidarity with all minorities, including Christians, who are the equal citizens of Pakistan, but also to highlight their role in the creation and development of the country." Moreover, Advocates International welcomes Prime Minister Gilani's announcement that the government would set up a committee to review and improve "laws detrimental to religious harmony."  The Pakistani government officials' statements come in the wake of two brutal mob attacks against the Christian communities of Gojra and Korian Village in Faisalabad which flared up over allegations of blasphemy that left at least 7 dead, nearly 100 Christian homes burned, and much unrest in Pakistan. Though not explicitly stating which laws would be reviewed, his statement alluded to the country's criminal blasphemy laws found in Article XV of its Penal Code introduced in 1982 and 1986 by military leader Zia ul-Haq in attempt to use Islam to promote popular appeal for his military regime.

Attacks on religious minorities have been exacerbated by Pakistan's blasphemy laws which have only fostered a climate of religiously-motivated violence and persecution.   Accusations of blasphemy have frequently resulted in the murder of both Muslims and members of religious minorities.

In Korian Village on July 30, 2009, over 47 Christian homes were burned in response to an accusation of blasphemy. Women and children were set on fire and severely burned. Fire brigade vans arrived to control the fire but the extreme Islamist mob did not allow them to pass and lay down in front of the vans to create a blockade. The riots were incited by broadcasts from local mosques.

The next day on August 1 around 11:00 a.m., another attack against the Christian community in Gojra occurred based on blasphemy allegations. An estimated 50 Christian homes were burned and more Christians were killed. Women and children burned did not have access to medical care. Local police arrived on the scene but the situation was reportedly out of control as thousands of Muslims gathered in reaction to the announcement of the local Mosques, which impeded the arrival of help.

The dead include women and children, with several other burn victims unable to reach hospitals for medical care. The event is reminiscent of the recent July 1st, 2009, incident in Bahminwala village, Kasur where 57 houses were destroyed as a response to false blasphemy allegations, and the mounting violence is a cause for concern and immediate action.

The blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution of religious minorities.  In January this year, five Ahamdis, including one minor, were detained on spurious charges of blasphemy in the Layyah district, with no evidence or witnesses to support the charges against them.

Evidence from Advocates International and other human rights groups in Pakistan with whom Advocates works suggests that charges brought against individuals under the blasphemy laws are founded solely on the individuals' minority religious beliefs or unfounded malicious accusations stemming from personal enmity, often with the motivation to have people imprisoned to gain advantage in business or land disputes. Police frequently fail to record and investigate complaints and justice is impeded by the biased attitude of some judges against religious minorities.

Advocates International urges the government of Pakistan to amend or abolish the blasphemy laws, particularly section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code which carries a mandatory death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy.  The organization calls on the Pakistan government to guarantee the human rights of minorities laid down in the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notably Article 18 which provides that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

The organization also calls Pakistan government to put into law and practice anti-discrimination measure on the grounds of religion.  To this end, the Pakistan government should introduce a comprehensive education program, at all levels of society, which promotes equality and respect for the diversity of beliefs in Pakistan. 

Advocates International hopes to meet with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, to express its willingness to work on both short-term and long-term solutions that will aid Pakistan in helping its entire people live peacefully with its religious differences under the equal protection of its law.

Advocates International's President, Sam Ericsson, said:  "History teaches us that blasphemy laws never achieve their intended purpose and only lead to the injury and corruption of their proponents, social unrest, and the unjust oppression of religious minorities against whom they are directed. We ask that the government of Pakistan abolishes the blasphemy law, a root cause of the false allegations which stir up the sentiments of the community.  We also ask the government of Pakistan to fully prosecute all those who murdered innocent villagers and those responsible for inciting the violence and destruction of homes.  We ask that all the injured receive proper medical care and lost property compensation.  For the sake of everyone in Pakistan, we call upon the government of Pakistan to go beyond merely celebrating 'Minorities Day' to actually prevent future violence targeted at Christian groups, including those subject to charges of blasphemy."

Advocates International is an international organization of staff and volunteer attorneys in over 150 nations, including Pakistan, who seek to do justice with compassion, including through its Religious Freedom Global Task Force, working to assure, in the words of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."