The President and Vice President of the Methodist Church in Britain have expressed “grave concern” over automatic death sentences for new blasphemy charges in Pakistan.
In an open letter to the Pakistani High Commission and the British Foreign and Commonwealth office, Reverend Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji, the leaders of the UK’s 230,000 Methodists, described the new policy as an “unjust response”.
Pakistan’s Federal Sharia Court made an order on 4 December to remove life imprisonment as one of the punishments for blasphemy, leaving only the death sentence.
The Pakistani government has until 4th February to choose to either amend the Penal Code or appeal the order.
It was the harsh punishments for blasphemy that prompted Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad to take the drastic step of publicly committing suicide as a protest in 1988.
Although at the present time, no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, there have been between 1,200 and 4,000 cases of blasphemy filed, and the result is often years in prison awaiting trial or the end of an arduous appeals process.
Many believe that changing the punishment for blasphemy will only increase the level of persecution against Christians and other non-Islamic minority groups.
The Methodist Church said there had been “considerable misuse” of the blasphemy laws and that “cases are often brought to settle personal scores or target the vulnerable”.
In August 2012, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was detained in a maximum security prison for several weeks due to false accusations that she burned pages of the Koran.
“It’s hard to imagine that things could have been even worse for Rimsha and her family, but that is the reality Pakistani society is facing,” they said.
“The only likely outcome of this reform is that the law becomes the cause of even more unjust and terrible abuses of those unable to defend themselves.”
“Minorities and vulnerable people have been targeted and personal scores have been settled, quite contrary to the real intention of the law.”
They went on to say that the Methodist Church wanted to see all faiths and all faithful people treated with honour and respect, and that they were not seeking to defend blasphemy.
However, they urged against removing the possibility of life imprisonment for blasphemy.
“We realise that the government may need to make a response in the next few weeks and we hope and pray that it will feel able to resist this move,” they said.
“If this order is accepted by the government, achieving justice for those accused of blasphemy will be an even more difficult task.”