Pakistan should move to abolish controversial blasphemy laws after the killing of seven Christians to prevent copycat riots from opening a new front of religious unrest, activists say.
Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan and although no one has been sent to the gallows for the crime, the legislation is too arbitrary, is exploited for personal enmity and encourages Islamist extremism, analysts say.
When an angry mob of Muslims torched 40 houses and a church in the remote village of Gojra in the Punjab recently, two children, their parents and 75-year-old grandfather were burnt to death.
Three days later, two people were killed in another Punjab town in what was a private employee dispute against a Muslim factory boss, but colored by unfounded allegations that the businessman had desecrated the Koran.
“It’s an arbitrary law, which has been badly misused by extremists and influentials and should be abolished,” said Iqbal Haider, co-chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“There is no option but to abolish this law. More than that, the government should revive the secular nature of the state as our founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah envisaged, otherwise it will aggravate religious unrest,” he said.
Almost from inception, Pakistani spies and soldiers have actively armed, sponsored, encouraged or turned a blind eye as Islamist-inspired militant outfits turned their guns on India to the east and Afghanistan to the west.
The country is battling Taliban radicals in the northwest. Islamist bomb attacks across the country have killed around 2,000 people in two years, having a detrimental effect on the economy and national image.
The commission said the Gojra attacks were “planned in advance” and that mosque announcements urged local Muslims to “make mincemeat of the Christians.”
“A police contingent present in the neighborhood did not try to stop the mob ... The attackers seemed to be trained for carrying out such activities,” it said.
The rights group quoted witnesses as saying that a number of attackers were from the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and other militant organizations.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law was introduced by former military ruler Zia ul-Haq, who passed tough Islamic legislation and whose 1977 to 1988 rule was seen as a critical point in the development of extremist Islam in parts of Pakistan.
The civilian administration in Pakistan moved to try to limit the fallout of the anti-Christian killings, offering compensation, but Cabinet ministers have stopped short of pledging to scrap the blasphemy laws.
Just one witness is enough to incriminate a “heretic.” Anyone accused of blasphemy is immediately arrested and charged, before an investigation begins.
In many cases, people take the law in their own hands and go for killing the alleged blasphemer and rights groups say the trend is increasing.
Hindus, Christians and other minorities make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 167 million population, generally impoverished and marginalized.