Masih, an Arabic word meaning “messiah,” is a common family name among Pakistani Christians. One of them is Stephan Masih, a Pakistani man with a psychological disability. Sadly, Masih is one of too many Christians in Pakistan who has become a victim of the country’s blasphemy laws.
In March 2019, Masih and his family had a dispute with their Muslim neighbors. After the incident, a Muslim cleric accused him of committing blasphemy. The following day, an angry mob surrounded Masih’s home and set it on fire. Instead of arresting the assailants, local police filed a First Information Report against Masih for committing blasphemy and detained him.
Masih has remained in custody since June 2019 and has been denied medical treatment for his mental disabilities. The Lahore High Court is now scheduled to hear an appeal on his bail application (which was previously postponed) on November 10, 2021. Ahead of the hearing, a group of United Nations experts published a statement calling on the government of Pakistan to release Masih:
We call on the authorities [in Pakistan] to urgently review Mr. Masih’s case, and release and drop all charges against him, and ensure protection for him and his family... It is deeply alarming that a mere disagreement between neighbors could lead to the judicial harassment of an individual, based on his religious or other beliefs, and by the use of anti-blasphemy laws which may carry the death penalty.
Blasphemy laws, which prohibit perceived insults against Islam, can be enforced with harsh punishments. Section 295-A of the Pakistani penal code prohibits insulting “religious feelings.” Section 295-B states whoever “defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an” can be punished with life imprisonment. Section 295-C states that insults against the Prophet Muhammad and his family are punishable by life imprisonment or death. These laws are often abused in Pakistan to settle unrelated disputes with non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians, who account for just three million of the country’s 207 million population, are common targets.
Yet, it is not just the Pakistani legal system that uses blasphemy accusations to harm people. Even in cases where charges are not filed, mobs have formed to punish perceived violators of blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, at least 75 people have been murdered by mobs or individuals due to blasphemy allegations since 1990.
In Pakistan, extremists often interpret “insults” to religion to include questioning any tenets of Islam or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, including condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy law. This motivated Mumtaz Qadri—the bodyguard of Governor Salman Taseer—to assassinate his own employer after Taseer spoke up on behalf of Christian blasphemy law victim Asia Bibi and condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Islamic extremists then proceeded to threaten the life of Taseer’s surviving son for continuing his father’s advocacy for Asia Bibi, saying that by doing so, he was “equally involved in the crime.”
One of the casualties was Pakistan’s minister of minorities affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. After raising concerns on this issue, he stated, “I was told I could be beheaded if I proposed any change, but I am committed to the principle of justice for the people of Pakistan... I am ready to die for this cause, and I will not compromise.” In 2011, two Taliban assassins sprayed the Christian official’s car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a “Christian infidel.”
Blasphemy laws are a global problem. A report by Family Research Council found that at least 70 countries have blasphemy laws. The Pew Research Center found that in 55 percent of countries with blasphemy laws, the government also discriminates against religious minorities. In Pakistan alone, at least 17 Pakistanis were on death row for a blasphemy charge as of 2019. And once charged with blasphemy, it’s difficult for victims to prove their innocence and be released. In fact, because the death penalty is afforded to certain types of blasphemy, courts reject most bail appeals, citing the “severity” of the crime.
So, what can be done to press for the repeal of blasphemy laws and help the victims?
As a part of the United States’ tradition of advocacy for human rights and religious freedom, the U.S. government should prioritize the repeal of these laws. The State Department should also mobilize the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to release religious prisoners of conscience wrongly imprisoned for blasphemy charges.
Individuals can support organizations that advocate for these causes or directly send letters urging the authorities to take measures to ensure the safety of the accused, speed up their trials, and bring to justice those responsible for the extrajudicial executions.
Blasphemy laws continue to destroy the lives of hundreds of people just like Masih. The free world should not stop advocating until all blasphemy laws are repealed, and everyone is free to live out their faith and express their beliefs.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.