Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Pakistan shot himself to death on May 6 to highlight the case of Ayub Massih, a Christian sentenced to death for supposedly making blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and thus against Islam. Following the death of the 66-year-old bishop and the Christian community's subsequent protest, the Lahore High Court ordered a stay of execution for Massih, pending an appeal. His fate remains undecided, as does the fate of more than 140 other people charged under the country's law against blasphemy.
In a letter sent to a local newspaper just before his death, the bishop stated that he hoped his suicide would galvanize his fellow bishops and others to work for the repeal of sections 295 B and Cot the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which make any blasphemy against Islam a serious crime and blasphemy against Muhammad punishable by death.
Until the police cracked down on Christian demonstrators and all constitutional rights were suspended (following Pakistan's recent nuclear tests) Joseph's death galvanized the country's Christian and human rights communities to demand the repeal of the blasphemy law. Christians and human rights activists in Pakistan still hope that once the immediacy of the nuclear issue passes, attention will once again focus on the injustices generated by the blasphemy law and on efforts to have it repealed. This would be an important first step toward ending religious persecution. But the overall climate and the suspension of all civil and political rights will make such mobilization within the country difficult without sustained international support and pressure.
The history of the blasphemy law is instructive. Starting in 1860 the British introduced laws designed to curb religious violence. When Pakistan became a nation, these were retained as PPC 295 and 295-A. As the original wording of PPC 295 shows, it treated all religions equally and prescribed minimal punishments: "Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of' thereby insulting the religion ... shall be punished with imprisonment ... for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both." However, both the intentions of the law and its penalties were drastically altered during the 1980s under the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq.
In a military coup in 1977 Zia overthrew the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He attempted to legitimize his dictatorship by claiming that his extraconstitutional seizure of power and subsequent rule by executive order were needed in order to "Islamicize" Pakistan. To that end he changed many parts of the legal system, adding a whole new class of Islamic laws and expanding and changing the intent of PPC 295. In 1982 section 295-B was added. It made damaging or desecrating the Qur'an, or even making a derogatory remark about it, punishable by life imprisonment.
Then in 1986 came the infamous section 295-C, usually referred to as the "blasphemy law." It stipulates that "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet ... either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputations, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly ... shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine." In 1990 the Federal Shari'at Court ruled that "the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet ... is death and nothing else."
In 1994 the Lahore High Court tried to extend the blasphemy law to include defiling the name of "all the true prophets of Allah mentioned in the Qur'an," including Abraham and Jesus. Because no parliamentary action on this was ever taken, the full import of the law remains unclear, and it continues to be applied only in cases dealing with blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
To understand why blasphemy is such an explosive issue in Pakistan we must start with the debate about the country's identity. …