Pakistan’s National Assembly is considering passing a new apostasy bill that would sentence to death all Muslim men converting from Islam and impose life imprisonment for women apostates.
The Apostasy Act 2006 was introduced by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – a coalition of six pro-Taliban religious parties – and was sent to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice last week.
If passed, the bill would also force convicted persons to forfeit their property and lose legal custody of any minor children.
“This situation is unfortunate and sad. We demand freedom of conscious, religion and expression in Pakistan, and this bill is contrary to the principle of freedom of choice,” said Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, head of National Commission for Justice and Peace and chairman of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, according to AsiaNews.
According to Section 4 of the bill, the testimony of two adults about someone leaving the Muslim faith, or the confession of the accused, is all that is needed for conviction. However, in some courts testimony by non-Muslims is prohibited and is an added negative factor in the case of the accused.
“Because international human rights charters give every individual the right to change his or her religion according to his or her conscience, we hope and pray that this bill will not be passed,” Saldanha said.
Also, in the same session last week, lawmakers who approved the draft of the apostasy bill rejected a draft bill that would ease the country’s current blasphemy laws.
The rejected bill called for an amendment of the blasphemy bill that would give equal treatment for Pakistanis of all faith. The current laws only punish those who have dishonored the Quran or Prophet Mohammad. The rejected bill called for prohibiting dishonoring the holy books of all religions. The amendment also proposed that if the accusations are found false then the accusers would be fined and imprisoned.
“The National Assembly of Pakistan has taken two steps backwards in religious freedom,” said Faith McDonnell, religious liberty director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, in a statement. “They are entertaining legislation that violates international standards of human rights. They have also rejected a bill to reform Pakistan’s misused blasphemy laws.”
McDonnell pointed to a case of a Christian being unjustly harmed by the blasphemy law. A Christian boy was sentenced to death for writing blasphemy on the wall of a mosque. However, the boy was completely illiterate but was accused by Muslim “witnesses” of the crime. Under international pressure the boy was released but the family had to flee the country for fear of being lynched by mobs.
“Christians and other religious minorities are being roped into false cases under the blasphemy law. They are being murdered by zealots … This law is proving to be a sword hanging on the heads of non-Muslims and secular-minded people,” said All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in a statement.
“The blasphemy law needs to be amended, if not altogether repealed, because of its great misuse. The law has created an atmosphere of bigotry and intolerance …a sense of insecurity and harassment.”
Currently, Pakistani Christians in the northwest town of Charsadda are confronting the additional threat from extremists to shut down their churches and convert back to Islam by May 17 or face “dire consequences and bomb explosions,” according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“Kindly pray for the protection and safety of Christians of Charsadda, who continue to remain in siege but undefeated spiritually and continue to uphold their faith in these difficult times,” wrote Shahbaz Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, in a letter Friday.
“Kindly pray for government of Pakistan that God may provide them wisdom and courage to make sincere efforts to control the situation and violence.”