Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer echoed the sentiments of many pro-democracy advocates recently when he said Pakistan's blasphemy law is not "God given, but man made." His remarks came following a meeting with Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy against the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Taseer called blasphemy an offense, but said falsely accusing someone of committing it is an even greater offense.
Rising choruses of Pakistani legislators agree, however few will admit it publicly for fear of inciting the wrath of militant clerics and Islamists. But a bold, courageous female legislator—a former close associate of the late Benazir Bhutto is proposing the country's 295 Blasphemy Law be amended.
Forty-nine-year old Sherry Rehman, the former minister of information and spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party has submitted a private member bill in the National Assembly Secretariat that would—among other things—eliminate the death sentence for those convicted of committing blasphemy against Mohammed (295 C) and replace it with a 10-year prison term.
Certainly this would spare the accused from death, but no Christian has spent more than six or seven years in prison on blasphemy charges; eventually they've been released by order of the High Court. This may potentially add time in prison for those falsely accused.
Currently, committing blasphemy against the Koran (295 B) is punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Ms. Rehman is proposing that it be reduced to a five-year imprisonment sentence.
She's also proposing that a new section be added to the law to give anyone making false blasphemy accusations the same punishment prescribed for those found guilty "under (the section of the law) which the false or frivolous accusation was made." This may actually deter many false accusations of blasphemy against Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Many of these accusations are actually the result of land disagreements and personal disputes--efforts to seize property or gain vengeance.
And yet another proposed revision calls for all 295A, 295B, and 295C cases (blasphemy against Islam, the Koran, and Mohammed) to be heard only by the High Court. This would prevent biased decisions by lower courts. Islamists often intimidate or bribe local judges to rule in their favor.
Another proposed change to the law calls for a fine and/or imprisonment of up to seven years for those advocating religious hatred or incitement to discrimination of violence. Many times Islamic clerics--from mosque loudspeakers--incite mob violence against Christians when rumors of blasphemy first surface. If enforced by police, this may protect Christians and their churches from attack.
Ms. Rehman's proposals are certain to face an uphill legislative battle. Few people believe her reasoned approach will be adopted. In the meantime, Pakistani Christians—including Asia Bibi's five children (who have waited for more than a year and a half for their mother to return home) will keep praying for a miracle.