Religious liberty threats rise?

Christians are by no means the only ones targeted by Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Agence France-Presse informs readers that an imam and his son were recently convicted under the law:

A Pakistan court has jailed a Muslim prayer leader and his 20-year-old son for life on controversial blasphemy charges in the rural centre of the country, court officials said Tuesday.

The case follows the killing of Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard last Tuesday, after the outspoken politician called for reform of the law that was recently used to sentence a Christian woman to death.

Mohammad Shafi, 45, and his son Mohammad Aslam, 20, were arrested in April last year for removing a poster outside their grocery shop advertising an Islamic event in a nearby village which allegedly contained Koranic verses.

Why did they remove the poster? Why is that punishable? The story doesn't consider the answers to such questions important, I guess. We are told that the law is sometimes used to settle personal scores and "encourages Islamist extremism." But this case was about interfaith (or is that intrafaith?) rivalries, defense attorney Arif Gurmani says:

"Both are Muslims. The case is the result of differences between Deobandi and Barelvi sects of Sunni Muslims," he said.

So which side is which? We're not told. Let me make it clear that I'm only able to criticize this piece because it's one of the few that were even written about the sentencing. It's much worse to not even report on this fact.

Still, the story has other problems. It mentions that nobody has been executed under this law but fails to mention how frequently those prosecuted under this law are killed by mobs upon their release. It's probably not much comfort to their families that such killings aren't officially done by the state. The other problem is that it says only "right-wing" religious clerics have praised the assassin of Taseer. In fact, there's been widespread support. Just because that is difficult for non-Pakistani audiences to comprehend does not mean it should be obscured.

In related news, Pope Benedict XVI has called on Pakistan to abrogate its blasphemy law. That probably won't get as much coverage as his call to give Christian children Christian names, understandably, but it's still newsworthy.

His words are also part of a clear attempt to support religious liberty throughout the world. It was the theme of his address to the diplomatic corps and is provoking something of a firestorm. The BBC reports that Egypt recalled its diplomat to the Vatican.

This seems like a very good time to devote coverage to broader religious liberty questions. I hope to see just that in the weeks to come.

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