On Thursday, Oct. 28, representatives from an Ireland-based lobby group in Dublin presented to Pakistani Ambassador, Toheed Ahmad, with a petition that calls for Muslims who choose to convert to another faith to be free to do so without having to face a lifetime of fear as a result. The petition, signed by 2,185 people in Ireland, was accompanied by a dossier documenting individual cases of the violation of human rights of Christians in Pakistan during 2004.
The Irish “Free to Choose” petition is part of an international petition (Coordinated by Barnabas Fund) that has been signed by 88,890 people from 32 countries. The international petition was presented to Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Geneva in late July.
After David Turner and Louis Hemmings, representatives from Christian Concern for Freedom of Conscience (CCFC), presented the petition to Ahmed, the ambassador described the petition as an “advertisement” made in an “accusatory” mode that had several gaps in its description of Christianity in Pakistan. He pointed out that Pakistan had many Christian missionary institutions such as schools and hospitals and that he himself had been educated in a school run by Irish Catholic Patrician Brothers. Ahmad stated that the Constitution of Pakistan explicitly provided for the freedom of Christians and others to practice their faith.
In response, Turner stated that the dossier was not intended to be seen as a comprehensive account of the situation of Christians in Pakistan, but rather a listing of issues of concern to Christians in Pakistan.
Ahmad said that the root cause of many of the problems listed in the dossier was poverty. He said that 38 percent of Pakistan’s population (including many Christians) lived under the poverty line and this caused people to respond in different ways. He believed that deprivation rather than discrimination was behind the difficulties faced by Christians.
Turner outlined the problems caused to Christians by Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, after which Ahmad replied that many different countries had blasphemy laws but much international concern was focused solely on Pakistan. Turner then responded by saying that while many countries may have blasphemy laws, it is only in Pakistan that the law has been so widely used (and misused), that many people have been sentenced to death and that so many Christians (and Muslims) had been charged.
The ambassador agreed that there was a problem in relation to the implementation of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan, partly due to a weak judicial system, but said that the government was trying to reform the law by consensus and that this process would take time.
Turner then emphasized that efforts to reform the law had been ongoing for many years during which many innocent Christians had spent long periods in prison. He particularly mentioned the case of Shahbaz Masih—a 26 year-old Christian who has been imprisoned since 2001 and was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2004 despite being medically proven as mentally ill. Ahmad agreed that innocent people were suffering under the Blasphemy Law and described this case as “outrageous” and “unacceptable”.
The cordial 45-minute meeting ended with Ahmad passing on a Pakistani government document, “Brief on the Rights of the Minorities and Blasphemy Law” for CCFC to study and indicated that he would be open to meeting a CCFC delegation again.