Rejecting the U.S. State Department’s criticism that Pakistan imposed limits on religious freedom, President Pervez Musharraf today called for modification of the country's blasphemy law to prevent victimization of minorities, sources said. "It is unfortunate. I reject it," Musharraf told an inter-religious gathering in response to the report.
According to the annual report on International Religious Freedom, which the State Department released on Wednesday, while the Pakistani Constitution provides for religious freedom, “in practice”, the government “imposes limits.”
"I feel may be the basis of the report is the blasphemy law, because it is state law,” Musharraf said. “Without saying much on it I would like to say that we must examine this law and we must make sure that it is amended to the extent to that we guarantee to our minorities that they will not be victimized."
He added, "But at the same time [the report] calls for introspection. Why is Pakistan considered as a country with state hostility towards minorities?"
"I say this with full conviction that it is our misfortune that while our reality on ground is good, the perception is bad,” Musharraf said. “There are countries where reality is bad but the perception happens to good. It is unfortunate."
Musharraf said reason for such a perception about Pakistan was the blasphemy law brought in by previous military ruler, Zia-ul Haq.
In 1998, Sharia law was adopted in Pakistan, under which Christians and other minority religious groups have limited rights. Persecution watchdogs such as the Voice of the Martyrs, have reported that many Pakistani Christians have been falsely accused under Law 295c of blaspheming Mohammed or the Koran, a crime punishable by death.
According to sources, when blasphemy and other religious cases are brought to court, extremists often pack the courtroom and make public threats against an acquittal. Judges and magistrates, seeking to avoid a confrontation with or violence often continue trials indefinitely. As a result, those accused of blasphemy often face lengthy periods in jail and are burdened with increased legal costs and repeated court appearances.
Even if acquitted, those accused often face threats, violence and even death at the hands of mobs following their acquittal.
Musharraf has criticized the blasphemy law a number of times in the past but he never pressed for its repeal saying that it is for the Parliament to change it.
As of the end of the reporting period, more than 100 persons were detained for blasphemy offenses.