CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 May 2019

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Turmoil as court sets aside Asia Bibi death sentence

ISLAMABAD (Agencies): The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned the submissive response of Pakistan’s government’s to protests by Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) as well as its inability to preserve “the writ of the state” during protests that erupted after the acquittal of, Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman convicted of blasphemy, in a controversial blasphemy case. 
 
Pakistan’s Supreme Court set aside the death sentence of Bibi and ordered her release from prison on October 31. The court ruled that Bibi be released from death row immediately if she had no other case registered against her. 
 
The mother of five was sentenced to death in 2010 on charges of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim farm worker.
 
However, demonstrations led by TLP chief and founder, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had reached a third day across the country, resulting in massive destruction of private and public property by vandals, until the state and protesters reached an agreement on November 2.
 
The government agreed to a travel ban preventing Bibi from leaving the country and said it would not object to groups appealing the Supreme Court verdict.
 
The rights commission called the government’s rapid concession to the group’s demands “a mockery of the rule of law.”
 
In a November 4 statement HRCP said, “What was hailed as a landmark judgment and a human rights victory unravelled into a situation in which there was no distinction between the peaceful right to dissent and the thuggery of mobs who claimed a moral right to wreak public havoc, to attack citizens and law enforcement personnel, to wantonly destroy property and to incite hatred against religious minorities.” 
 
It said, “HRCP strongly urges the government to take an unequivocal and consistent stand against groups and individuals that have no qualms about employing violent, extraconstitutional means to have their way.”
 
Rizvi has also warned the judges, the government and local as well as international nongovernment organisations of “dire” consequences He also threatened Saiful Malook, her lawyer.
Samson Salamat, the Christian chairperson of the interreligious Rawadari Tehreek (Movement for Tolerance), said in a press statement after the Supreme Court’s verdict, “This is a highly tense and threatening situation for religious minorities, especially for Pakistani Christians, and there is fear of persecution of Christians and attacks on their churches and other properties.” 
 
The statement said, “We call upon the government of Pakistan and the Supreme Court to take notice of the threats made by Khadim Rizvi and his group prior to the announcement of the Asia Bibi verdict.”
 
Salamat also called for a ban on Tehreek-e-Labaik “and all similar extremist groups who are involved in hate speech and use religion as a tool to promote violence in society.” 
 
He added, “We also call upon the government and law enforcement agencies to beef up security and ensure the deployment of military troops to safeguard the lives and property of religious minorities, especially the Christian community.”
 
Caritas Pakistan appealed for prayers of peace in the country.
 
“The acquittal has drawn a mixed reaction from Christian social media users. Most of them are happy with the decision but a sense of insecurity and fear is there due to the protesters, who may attack Christian localities and institutions,” it said.
 
Meanwhile, CNS reported Columban Father Robert McCulloch as telling The Catholic Weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, that the decision to free Bibi had also set a groundbreaking legal precedent for the country.
 
“I’m very positive about the situation and we can take a lot of heart from what new prime minister, Imran Khan said,” Father McCulloch said on November 1.
 
In a televised broadcast to the nation, Khan attacked Muslim fundamentalist leaders calling for Bibi to be killed following her successful appeal, CNS reported. 
 
Khan said that Islamic hardliners were “inciting (people) for their own political gain”, and said they are “doing no service to Islam”.
 
Father McCulloch, who spent 34 years in Pakistan, said, “I think this is very important because, given the prime minister’s statements in the recent election campaign, we never knew exactly where he stood on the question of religious freedom in Pakistan.” 
 
He said, “A very important precedent in law has been established and set which will be to the benefit of the thousands who are incarcerated in Pakistan because of accusations of blasphemy.” 

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