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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

US Lawmakers Press Pakistan on Religious Tolerance

By Dan Robinson
08 October 2009

U.S. lawmakers want Pakistan to do more to fight religious intolerance, saying the issue should play a bigger role in U.S. assistance to and engagement with Pakistan in coming years. Witnesses at a congressional hearing testified that Pakistan's blasphemy laws encourage extremism.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry a potential death penalty for derogatory remarks or actions against Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, have long been controversial within and outside the country.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations say the laws have been used to squelch dissent and oppress Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities, and have often led to violence.

Anti-Christian violence in the Pakistani city of Gojra this past August resulted in the deaths of at least seven Christians, with 50 homes burned.

Nina Shea, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says additional events since Gojra have underscored that religious tensions continue. "Since Gojra several reports have been made of Muslims tearing out pages of [a] Koran and leaving them on church property, including [at] the Associated Reform Presbyterian Church in another Punjab village on September. This was an apparent attempt to ignite more religious violence," she said.

Shea and other witnesses support a non-binding resolution introduced in the House of Representatives by Republican Congressman Christopher Smith, who says radicalism poses a threat to Islam. "In the intermediate and long-term, certainly these radical Islamic jihadists and others are the greatest threat to Islam and to believers such as yourselves," Smith said.

The resolution says U.S. non-military assistance, which will triple over the next five years, must support an interfaith dialogue begun by Pakistan's Minister of Minorities Affairs Shabaz Bhatti, and help the government counter religiously-motivated hostility and violence.

It also urges Pakistan to repeal the anti-blasphemy laws, and investigate acts and punish perpetrators of religiously-motivated violence.

"The blasphemy law, and to be persecuting people because of their faith, we want a great relationship with Pakistan, but I think this is just unacceptable," said Republican Representative Frank Wolf, who is among lawmakers supporting Smith's resolution.

Non-Muslims make up less than five percent of Pakistan's population of 175 million. Four million of the country's Muslims are Ahmadis, who say they face increasing persecution.

Mujeeb Ijaz is an activist in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States, and was among three witnesses appearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

He says Pakistan's blasphemy laws are used by extremists to silence alternative views of Islam and definitions of such things as jihad. "Because of the government's legalized official repression of minorities, the average Pakistani cannot question the clergy's doctrines, even if they call for violence in the name of religion for fear that they become labeled as blasphemers. The nightmare scenario is to be tagged as a blasphemer, end up in prison, face police brutality, judicial indifference, social boycott and in many cases death at the hands of vigilantes," he said.

Attorney Amjad Mahmood Khan, a lecturer on human rights, law, and governance in Muslim majority countries, says blasphemy laws have gained legitimacy and withstood legal challenges in Pakistan, but are not legitimate and even blatantly violate international human rights law and principles.

"The anti-blasphemy laws circumvent Article 55(c) of the U.N. Charter, and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory. This is especially troubling since Pakistan was once firmly committed to abide by the Charter and Declaration. Second, the anti-blasphemy laws circumvent Articles 18, 19, 20, and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] to which Pakistan is a signatory as of last year," he said.

Representatives Smith and Wolf are urging President Barack Obama's Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, to elevate the importance of the religious tolerance issue where U.S-Pakistan relations are concerned. Representative Wolf said he hopes that Mr. Holbrooke will have an opportunity to hold an in depth meeting with Pakistan's minorities minister Bhatti.

When he visited Washington in September at the invitation of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, Bhatti said the Pakistan government is committed to reviewing and amending blasphemy laws so they "will not remain a tool in the hands of extremists."

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