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Blasphemy Laws Today

By The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing


President of the United Religions Initiative

Retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California


On March 27, 2001, almost immediately after I had arrived in Lahore, I was taken to the Pakistan Movement Workers' Trust where I was interviewed by a large number of journalists. I was on a three nation (Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan) visit to show solidarity with new United Religions Initiative groups and to enhance our exposure. Interfaith was my mission. But the first and clearly the loaded question from the reporters was, "What do you think of our blasphemy laws?" Clearly they were baiting me to condemn Pakistan's laws which were sometimes ripe excuses for bringing terror and intimidation to people of minority religions. I had hardly been in town an hour and was publicly on the spot.


I said something like this. "There probably is such a thing as blasphemy. When someone mocks the Divine Creator of the Universe. Blasphemy could be felt silently or expressed overtly. It could be with clear intent or it might merely be a clumsy choice of words that seem like blasphemy but are not. Or when someone who desires to bring ultimate harm to another, that someone could lie and claim that the other voiced blasphemy. Whatever blasphemy is, God should be the one to determine the intent and to mete out a just sentence. When human beings begin to take the place of God and pass judgment on intent and mete out death for blasphemy, I think that human beings are in a most presumptuous, dangerous and unwise state."


Later on in that trip I saw first hand the terror and intimidation that comes from blasphemy laws. I was in the kitchen of a Christian family in Lahore, and the parents were sending their little children off to school. The parents warned their children not to kid around or tease or be in any way offensive to Muslim children. Those Muslim children, if aroused to hatred, could claim that they heard a Christian child mock the Quran or the Prophet. On the basis of one male witness or four female witnesses, the blasphemy machinery could be put in motion and culminate in the death of your child.


This becomes a broader threat when blasphemy is understood to be an indignity toward the religion as well as a contemptuous assertion about God. Further, it gets more complicated when a religion is linked with a nation. That ends up with people who say something against the nation or the religion or God being accused of blasphemy. A theocracy of all these invites blasphemy laws.


In Jewish history Mosaic Law tells us that death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). In England in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, blasphemy was punished by death. In Scotland it wasn't until 1837 that blasphemy was punishable by fine or imprisonment or both but not by death. Even in the United States some states had blasphemy laws that had prescribed punishments. Pakistan is merely the latest nation to wrestle with this ancient and unreliable concept.


When I think of the central figures in the creation of Pakistan, I think of The Great Leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and also Allama Mohammed Iqbal. These were most certainly not religious extremists but moderate, modern innovators. As a matter of fact Jinnah described religious minorities as a "Sacred trust of Pakistan." Originally the blasphemy laws of Pakistan were passed to deal with "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."


For forty years these broad sensibilities prevailed. But in 1986 a new Blasphemy Law (Amendment Act No. III) was introduced that brought a mandatory sentence of death (section 259C of the Pakistani penal code). If a claim of blasphemy is made, a person is arrested and put in detention. If the charge of defaming the Prophet Mohammed is upheld in the courts, the sentence is mandatory death. If the charge of desecrating the Holy Quran is upheld, the sentence is life imprisonment. If a mob decides that blasphemy had been committed, the sentencing is swift and deadly.

Presently convictions are made possible without proof of deliberate intent on the part of the accused. In this past twenty years almost 650 have been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan even though this law is in contradiction to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan (Article 6 of the Constitution).

Time has passed. Most blasphemy laws throughout the world have been repealed. They don't accomplish what they set out to do. All civilized societies are figuring that out. Today Muslim Pakistanis immigrate to other countries and are themselves a minority religion and are terribly glad that there are not blasphemy laws in these new counties which could lead to their children's death. We all live together in one great big world. We are all in a religious minority or a religious majority or a grouping that eschews or ignores faith. Yes there probably is such a thing as blasphemy but that is for God to determine. Yes there probably are blasphemies against things sacred in our midst. Nevertheless our main job in all of this, it seems to me is not to spend our time and resources figuring out the blasphemy crimes and punishments but to rise to new levels of mutual respect and willingness to acknowledge differences and create healthier communities.

Having had conversations over the years with Pakistani Supreme Court Justices, legislators, ambassadors and religious leaders I am certain that all of them were as horrified as the rest of the world by the recent burning of Christian people and homes in Gojra. It appears that the perpetrators of this violence did so under the belief that they were carrying out the intent of the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan.

If such laws could inspire such terror, I am not surprise to find the Government of Pakistan appointing a Commission to review these laws.

I work with people in Pakistan who strive to promote interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to build cultures of peace, justice and healing. These people want religious minorities throughout the world not only to be protected from mob rule but to build new, stronger bonds of understanding between people of majority and minority religions in every country.


Therefore I heartily endorse the intent of the Commission and hope that they day will come when Blasphemy Laws will be repealed or amended and that new paths of interfaith living might be fostered.


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