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1998 | 54th Regular Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (16 March - 24 April 1998)

Freedom of religion and belief in Pakistan

March 16 – April 24, 1998
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mr. Chairman, we wish you peace and all goodness. As members of religious communities, with a combined membership of over 800,000 members in more than 120 countries, Franciscans International in collaboration with the Dominicans is concerned about the denial of rights to religious freedom and the discrimination against religious minorities in many countries where we live. We take inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi. In 1219 during the Fifth Christian Crusade, St. Francis spent some months in the Sultan’s camp in Damietta Egypt. During his visit Francis learned to see the Sultan as a Muslim friend and not as a foe to be fought or converted to Christianity.

Mr. Chairman, many of the most serious wars in human history are the result of intolerance of religious differences. Therefore, we find commendable law number 295 A, in the present Penal Code of Pakistan, promulgated in 1927 to protect the sacredness of religious beliefs. Two other sections, 295 B and C, the Blasphemy Laws, were added later by President Zia. These additions deeply distress a number of Muslims and Christians. We share their concern.

Sections 295 B, which condemns any sign of disrespect for the Koran and 295 C which calls for punishment of inuendos and intimations of disrespect are ambiguous and unfair. Their implementation is often arbitrary and vicious. These particular sections of the penal code incubate and protect suspicion and retributions for personal grudges.

At the last Commission and Sub-Commission meetings we reported on the destruction of the Christian villages of Shantinagar and Khanewal on 5 and 6 February, 1997 by a group of 4,000 people led by a small group of militant Muslims.

The government of Pakistan has taken steps to address this violation of human rights. The Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif as well as the Chief Minister of the Province of Punjab, Mohammed Shahbaz Sharif after visiting the destruction in March 1997 promised to compensate the victims and to bring those responsible for the destruction to justice. The Punjab government set up an inquiry tribunal to investigate the incident. Justice Tanver Ahmed Khan of the Multan High Court in Lahore completed his investigations on 14 May, 1997 after having recorded the testimony of 100 Christians and Muslims. In June 1997 Ramzan Dhorput, the head constable, Muhammad Sadiq, the assistant sub inspector (ASI) and Habib Ghulam, the deputy superintendent of the region were suspended from their functions. But there have been no formal charges nor hearing of their cases.

Mr. Chairman, we commend the promises and efforts of the Pakistani government but we must inform this Commission that much remains to be done to address this situation:

  1. The results of the inquiry have not yet been made public, at least to those immediately affected.

(2) Franciscans International notes that a large percentage of the houses and shops have been rebuilt with the aid of the government and foreign and local Christian churches. But most of the other promises made by the Pakistani authorities have not been kept. People of these villages continue to be deprived of basic amenities. The broken promises contributes to the tension between Christians and Muslims in the region. This tension was evident on the first anniversary of the incident.

We support the recommendations of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Superiors of the Catholic Church in Pakistan in its statement of March 26, 1998 and we ask that:

  1. The government of Pakistan publicize the report of the investigation tribunal and bring to civil justice those responsible for the destruction of Shantinagar and Khanewal.
  2. The government of Pakistan repeal all discriminatory laws particularly the Blasphemy Laws, section 295 b and c of the Pakistani Penal Code.
  3. The separate electoral system based on religion must be abolished. This electoral process effectively isolates minorities from the main stream of political and social life. It is discriminatory and is a serious cause of division and tension among the citizens of Pakistan.

Another great country, India, is home for a number of our Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers. We are also concerned about the discrimination and persecution of Muslim and Christian minorities in India.

The destruction of mosques and killing of numerous Muslims over the past few years is particularly disturbing. From 1978 to 1997, 17 Catholic priests and sisters were brutally murdered and at least 27 others have been beaten or raped. On 2 September 1997 Father Christudas, a Catholic priest, was mocked and paraded naked through the streets of Dhumka, Bihar. On 23 October 1997 another priest, Father A.T. Thomas, was beheaded in Harazibagh, Bihar. No actions have been taken to bring to justice the prepreters of these violations of human rights. In fact, in many cases the crimes were committed in the presence of the police.

We acknowledge the special character of Bihar and its difficulty with law enforcement. But after the recent national election, we have a wider concern about the place and voice of Hindu fundamentalists in the composition of the new government. We hope that India as the world’s largest democracy, will continue to develop its historical public commitment to toleration and respect for diversity.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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