GENEVA (Reuters) - Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan live in fear of persecution and even execution or murder on false charges of blasphemy against Islam, the World Council of Churches (WCC) says.
The Council, a global body linking Protestant and Orthodox churches in 110 countries, has called on the Pakistani government to change a law that allows for the death penalty for blaspheming Islam.
Since the law was adopted in 1986 religious minorities in the country have been “living in a state of fear and terror ... and many innocent people have lost their lives,” the WCC said in a statement.
Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country where religious minorities account for roughly 4 percent — three quarters of whom are Christians — of its 170 million people.
In early August, the WCC head, Kenyan Methodist Samuel Kobia, protested to the Pakistani government over violence in Punjab province when Muslims torched Christian homes and 8 people were killed, seven of them burned to death.
Reports at the time said the attacks in Gojra town were sparked by allegations, denied by church leaders as well as Pakistani government officials, that Christians had desecrated the Koran.
Pakistani government officials said the violence, which also brought protests from Pope Benedict, was the work of Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda and the country’s Taliban movement.
The WCC, which works with the Vatican on many religious issues, said it felt the blasphemy law, and the way it was abused, was the main problem.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani minister for minorities, said the law had been abused by “extremist elements” against minorities and the government wanted to review it.
“We are receiving demands from different sections of society, especially from the minority communities, to review this law,” Bhatti told Reuters.
“We are in the process of consultation with different stakeholders and after this consultation, we intend to review this law to stop the misuse.”
Convictions for blasphemy are fairly common in Pakistan with most cases involving members of religious minorities, but death sentences have never been carried out — usually because convictions are thrown out on a lack of evidence.
But there have been cases where accused have been killed by mobs.
The death penalty for blasphemy was introduced in the 1980s by then military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq. Later governments tried to amend the law but had to drop their plans because of opposition from Islamic groups.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD; Editing by David Fox and Robert Birsel