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Pakistani Church continues struggle against blasphemy laws, abductions


Aid to the Church in Need

John Burger - published on 08/08/22

Lahore archbishop details efforts to help young Catholics respond to challenges.

The minority community of Catholics in Pakistan has developed various strategies in the face of continuing threats stemming from a national law against blasphemy, kidnapping and forced conversions of girls to Islam, and a national educational curriculum that favors fundamentaliast Islam.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, O.F.M., archbishop of Lahore (pictured above), spoke about the challenges and the Church’s respose in an interview during a recent visit to the U.S.

The archbishop was in New York for talks with Aid to the Church in Need-USA. ACN supports the pastoral work of the Church in Pakistan. Christians in Pakistan face many challenges and the Church remains one of the unique institutions representing the underprivileged and marginalized communities. ACN partnering with the local Church has developed specific programs to address the abductions and forced conversions of Christian girls in Pakistan.

One of the biggest challenges has been Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Section 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code recommend life imprisonment and the death penalty, respectively, for blasphemy. There have been countless calls from advocates around the world to rescind such laws, in Pakistan and elsewhere. The case of Asia Bibi, who was ultimately acquitted of blasphemy charges and freed from death row, brought prominence to the issue. Pakistan is 96.5% Muslim, and cases most of the time involve alleged blasphemies against Islam.

Even if the accused end up being acquitted, mobs sometimes take justice into their own hands. In addition, Pakistani citizens have been known to abuse the blasphemy law to settle personal quarrels or rivalries.

Law or personal dispute?

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “subject individuals to death sentences for ‘defiling Prophet Muhammad,’ to life imprisonment for ‘defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran, as well as to prison sentences for ‘insulting another’s religious feelings.’” says the University of Notre Dame’s Under Caesar’s Sword project. “Blasphemy laws disproportionately affect minorities such as Ahmadis, Shias and Christians. Many blasphemy cases against Christians are often motivated by personal disputes that are exacerbated by tribal and ethnic differences.”

“We have now initiated many interfaith dialogue groups,” Archbishop Shaw told Aleteia. “The one in Lahore has more than 60 members — the biggest group. It includes many Islamic imams and scholars and Hindu and Sikh [representatives]. Also some groups in Multan and Islamabad and Karachi and Hyderabad. When we have more awareness and relationships some misunderstandings will go away.

“We’re also teaching our youth not to get involved in any debates over religion because religion is your own personal matter, so avoid that,” he continued. “But if someone asks you about your religion, just explain what your religion is and do not say anything about the religion of others.”

Dialogue, not debate

He added that the Church instructs the faithful that there is a difference between debate and dialogue. “In debate, one has to win and one has to lose,” he said. “But in dialogue, both are winners. You share your ideas and the other shares his ideas. Maybe both ideas are good, but it might take months to understand the concept and faith of the other person. When God gives you the grace, you will understand. Humanity is the biggest religion; we have to follow that.”

As for abductions and forced conversions, Shaw said the Church is continuing to bring attention to the problem and seek help from government officials and Islamic leaders. Last month, Pakistani human rights groups expressed concern over the lack of legal and regulatory safeguards to protect underage minority girls from forced conversions, Asia News reported. 

The problem affects Hindu girls as well as Christian, Shaw said. “I hope in the future children will be able to play in parks and there won’t be any fear of abductions,” he said.

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