Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Addresses Religious Persecution

October 25, 2023

RFI Senior Fellow Charles Ramsey authored an article recently for RealClearPolitics titled, “Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Addresses Religious Persecution.” Also a resident scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion, Ramsey reflects in the article on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the vigilantism that often accompanies accusations around these laws, and his interview of Pakistan Supreme Court Chief Justice Faez Isa related to these matters. Ramsey writes:

“It was unbelievably hot. The smell of burnt debris was terrible. It was a traumatic and emotional experience. It really affects one. I still have the smell of burning in my head,” recounted Qazi Faez Isa, the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. On the morning of Aug. 16, 2023, a violent mob ransacked and set ablaze the homes and churches in the Christian neighborhood of Jaranwala, a provincial city about 70 miles from the provincial capital, Lahore. The allegation, as has become painfully predictable in Pakistan, was that two men had desecrated the Qur’an, and therefore it was open season upon the Christian community in the city. Some 89 homes and 22 churches were gutted by the mob. I was in conversation with Chief Justice Isa right after the attack, and I had the opportunity to listen to his initial reactions and to follow his journey as a thoughtful and faithful Muslim to travel to the site and to express care and concern for the victims, and to decry these heinous attacks. My hope is that presenting his reflections and the heart of our conversation will offer some insight into the complexities surrounding religious violence in Pakistan and the seeming intractability of the country’s infamous blasphemy laws.

To place this in context, it is important to recall that Pakistan inherited the “blasphemy laws” from the British. As I explored in greater detail in Review of Faith & International Affairs,the law was first added to the penal code in 1860 and was later expanded in 1927 as Section 295, the Hate Speech Law, which stands today. This was instituted following the highly publicized murder of a Hindu named Mahashe Rajpal due to his writings, which were deemed offensive to the Muslim community in the Punjab. The law made it a criminal offense to volitionally and maliciously insult the founders or leaders of any religious community. It was put in place to protect communal harmony and to temper public discourse on sensitive subjects of religion. Over time, two additional clauses have been added. The first (section b) in 1982 specified the defilement of the Qur’an as punishable by life imprisonment. The second (section c), added in 1986, specified that any derogatory remark pertaining to Muhammad or any of the prophets was punishable by death. The penal code also added Section 298, which forbade the identification of the Ahmadi sect with the religion of Islam and forbade their use of Islamic terms and the propagation of their belief. Though this offense carries a penalty of three years imprisonment, it has also provoked extra-judicial killings of some 75 people.

Within this highly contentious sphere, one important note of progress was seen in the 2017 amendment to the Criminal Law Act, which enhanced the punishments for false accusations from one to seven years to deter the law’s abuse. So, if someone makes false accusations, there are repercussions. This was a positive step, but alas, the political wheels are now turning in the wrong direction. In January 2023, the National Assembly passed a controversial bill that increased the punishment from three years of imprisonment to life imprisonment, or not fewer than 10 years (under section 298-A), for insults to the companions and family of the Prophet of Islam and the first four Caliphs. The amendment clearly targets Shia Muslims. It was passed in the Senate in August 2023 and now awaits the president’s signature. 

Read the full article: “Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Addresses Religious Persecution.”