Faraz Pervaiz, a Pakistani Christian refugee in Bangkok, is pleading for help from Western governments as he tries to flee from the multitude of death threats he is currently receiving. Pervaiz is the victim of a major threat to religious freedom around the globe—blasphemy laws. In 2013, Pervaiz began speaking out in defense of Christians after a mob attack on a Christian neighborhood in Pakistan. He led protests that demanded police intervention and he published works online that were critical of Islamic theology and its application in the government of Pakistan. That’s more than enough to be convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan, where it is a crime to “outrag[e]” or “wound the religious feelings of any person” by utterance, sound, or gesture.
Pervaiz’s outspokenness forced him to flee Pakistan in 2014 following a video he posted online in which he and his father criticized Islamic teachings and the Pakistani government. After he had fled the country, a Muslim cleric accused him of blasphemy and the government filed a criminal case against Pervaiz following outside pressure to do so.
A Global Problem
However, Pakistan’s government is not the only problem. Political parties and average people continue to rally around these blasphemy laws and have shown a willingness to punish those who violate them even if the accused are acquitted by the courts. Parvaiz knows this all too well. Islamic political parties have offered 10 million Pakistani rupees (around $82,000) to anyone who would kill Parvaiz. Mullahs have also led demonstrations where the crowds were encouraged to chant: “There is only one punishment for insulting the Prophet. Sever the head from the body! Sever the head from the body!” As a refugee in Bangkok, Pervaiz still hasn’t found safety. His address in Thailand was recently revealed in a video posted to social media, prompting a new round of death threats. Pervaiz is now pleading for help from Western governments—before it’s too late.
While a stunning 72 countries (37 percent of the world) have blasphemy laws, Pakistan stands at the forefront as an example of a country where blasphemy laws are regularly used to harm religious minorities. Earlier this month, news broke that two Pakistani teenagers were arrested for receiving “blasphemous sketches” to an app on their phone—a charge they denied. One illiterate Pakistani couple is facing the threat of death row after they were charged with “insulting the Quran” and “insulting the Prophet” via text message.
Opposition to blasphemy laws is an issue that is starting to gain traction among religious freedom advocates, and deservedly so. At the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 27 countries co-signed a joint statement of concern that calls on countries which have blasphemy, apostasy, or other laws that restrict freedoms of religious expression to repeal them.
A Need for International Attention
Recognizing the significance of this global issue, Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Mark Meadows introduced a resolution last week in the U.S. House of Representative which calls for the “global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostacy laws.”
The resolution cites U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) findings of “egregious examples of the enforcement of blasphemy laws and vigilante violence connected to blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, where blasphemy charges are common and numerous individuals are in prison, with a high percentage sentenced to death or to life in prison.” The legislation also notes USCIRF’s knowledge of 40 individuals who are serving life sentences or are on death row for their blasphemy charges in Pakistan.
With this resolution, the House would recognize that “blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of religious truth and empower officials to impose religious dogma on individuals or minorities through the power of the government or through violence sanctioned by the government.” This is a statement that deserves to be heartily endorsed by the U.S. House and a sentiment that needs to be heard by governments that insist on keeping these laws.
Government Weaponization of Religious Dogma Must End
This past year saw the acquittal and release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian farmworker accused of insulting Islam. In what may have been the most well-known blasphemy case to the Western world, religious freedom advocates rejoiced at news of Bibi’s safe arrival in Canada when she was reunited with her family. While this was a tremendous victory, Bibi isn’t the only religious minority to suffer under Pakistani blasphemy laws—many continue to feel the burden of these laws.
The widespread use of blasphemy laws to suppress the expression of religious beliefs (or, the misuse of blasphemy laws to settle unrelated disputes) is alarming. The efforts put forth by the co-signatories of the ministerial’s statement of concern, as well as Rep. Raskin and Rep. Meadows, are critical. Pakistan (and other countries that maintain blasphemy laws) should feel the pressure of growing international attention on these repressive laws and the ways in which they are abused.