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Religious Extremists Use Blasphemy Laws
Sheila Archambault
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, September 22, 2009
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WASHINGTON—Blasphemy laws have been used as a tool by extremists like the Taliban and al-Qaida to advance their own agendas and to victimize religious minorities and other Muslims in Pakistan, said a Pakistani government official.

Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, told a Washington press conference that these religious extremists are not following Islam, because no religion condones the use of violence.

All Pakistanis are equal and "no one should be discriminated (against) or treated as second-class citizens in Pakistan based on religion," Bhatti said Sept. 17. He spoke at the offices of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal watchdog agency.

Under Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, desecration of the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment, and insulting the name of the prophet Mohammed carries a mandatory death sentence.

Bhatti said he is committed to bringing change to Pakistan and strengthening interfaith harmony. To achieve this, he said, he is consulting other religious leaders in Pakistan to review and revisit the blasphemy laws and is working to put in effect a minorities protection bill to secure the religious freedom and rights of minorities in Pakistan.

He said that on the initiative of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, he will meet with Pope Benedict XVI during the last week of September to help strengthen the initiative of religious freedom in Pakistan.

Bhatti said the world is concerned with terrorism, and while the war against terrorism is important, to win the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan it is important to show the U.S. commitment to the survival of democracy and freedom in the country.

Religious freedom is linked to security, Bhatti said, and religious extremists are a threat to Pakistan's prosperity and to peace-loving people around the world.

He said the cause of the oppressed and marginalized in Pakistan is a passion for him.
"I have been receiving many death threats and phone calls from extremists for a long time," he recently told the Rome-based missionary news agency AsiaNews, "but these threats cannot stop me from working on behalf of the minorities of the country."

According to the 2009 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan "has seen largely unchecked growth in the power and reach of religiously motivated extremist groups."

"The government's response continues to be insufficient, and in some cases, is outright complicit," the commission's report said.

It said Zadari's government "has taken some positive steps," such as appointing Bhatti as "federal minister for minorities with Cabinet rank."

In a recent incident in Punjab province, 10 Catholics were killed in rioting in Gojra and the nearby village of Korian. A Muslim mob vandalized and looted 113 Christian houses and damaged four Protestant churches July 30 and Aug. 1. Pages containing Islamic inscriptions had been found in front of a Christian home in Korian, and some Muslims accused the family of blasphemy, triggering the violence.

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