GENEVA: With Muslim leaders in many countries calling for a global law barring what they call insults to Islam, the main non-Catholic world Christian grouping on Monday said just such a law in Pakistan is used to persecute other religions.
Pakistan’s “Blasphemy Law” has driven the country’s religious minorities – Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis, a dissenting Islamic group – into “a state of fear and terror”, said the World Council of Churches (WCC), organisers of a 3-day conference on the law.
“The Blasphemy Law, while purporting to protect Islam and religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, is vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution,” the WCC said in a position paper.
Pakistani religious figures from those minorities told the conference in Geneva that the law had led to false imprisonment, mob killings and compulsory conversion to Islam.
A Christian girl believed to be no older than 14, Rimsha Masih, was granted bail in Pakistan earlier this month and her lawyers are applying to have charges that she burned pages from the Koran dismissed after a local cleric was detained on suspicion of planting false evidence to stir resentment against Christians.
Masih’s case has provoked international concern as she could face execution under the blasphemy law despite her young age and reported mental problems.
The Geneva conference, set up several weeks ago, comes amid protests by Muslims across the globe over a film posted on the Internet some two months ago which imams have told their followers insults both the Prophet Mohammad and Islam.
Several protesters have died, and four U.S. diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya, were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in an echo of earlier violent protests over books and cartoons published in the West.
Amid the violence, Muslim religious leaders, and one prime minister, have called for an international legal agreement to criminalise any insult to Islam and other religions, their holy books and their prophets.
A global law along these lines with the imprimatur of the United Nations was sought for many years by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at the U.N. Human Rights Council, now meeting in Geneva.
Every year for more than a decade until 2010 the council, where Pakistan is OIC spokesman, or its predecessor committee, as well as the UN General Assembly, passed majority resolutions on resolutions proposed by the Islamic grouping.
But these were not converted into international agreement because of fierce opposition from the United States, European and some Latin American countries, who argued it would violate free speech and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Following diplomatic negotiations spearheaded by the United States when the administration of President Barack Obama brought it into the council and support for the project waned, the OIC dropped its campaign two years ago.
“It certainly looks as though they (the OIC) might aim to use this furore over a video everyone recognises is stupid and pathetic to try to re-launch the ‘defamation’ campaign,” said one Western diplomat who asked not to be named.
Opponents of any such law say that even without it, Muslim communities in many non-Islamic countries manage to convince authorities to bend to their demands for banning or shelving literary or other works dealing with Islam.
Last week it was reported in Britain that a television programme by British prize-winning historian Tom Holland based on his recent book on the early centuries of Islam had been withdrawn following threats and protests by Muslims.
In a related development, another book was published in Britain on Monday by author Salman Rushdie on his experiences after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 put a price on his head over “blasphemy” against Islam in a novel.
At the weekend, an Iranian religious foundation announced it was increasing the reward for killing the Indian-born Rushdie to $3.3 million, the Iranian Students News Agency ISNA said.