Pakistan is approximately 97% Muslim and the remaining 3% are Christian, Hindu, Buddhists or others. The country has suffered chronic sectarian violence against religious and non-religious minorities, with Shia Muslims subjected to the majority of the violence, and many extremely serious incidents against the Christian minority. For individual non-religious persons to speak out is uncommon, but those revealed or alleged to be non-religious tend to provoke swift condemnation.

The legal environment in Pakistan is notably repressive; it has brutal blasphemy laws, systemic and legislative religious discrimination and often allows vigilante violence on religious grounds to occur with impunity.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
 
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. Despite the constitution’s promise of adequate provisions for minorities to practice their religious beliefs freely, many of Pakistan’s laws and policies restrict freedom of religion or belief. The Muslim majority is afforded more protections than the non-religious or minority religious groups. The relatively common sectarian and religiously motivated violence against minorities and individuals in Pakistan often goes unpunished.

Islam and a confused legal system

Pakistan’s penal code encompasses a number of Islamic legal provisions. The judicial system encompasses several different court systems with overlapping and sometimes competing jurisdictions that reflect differences in civil, criminal, and Islamic jurisprudence. For certain criminal convictions under the Hudood Ordinances, including those for rape, extramarital sex, alcohol, and gambling, the Sharia bench of the Supreme Court and the FSC serve as appellate courts. The FSC has the power to review, of its own accord, cases in lower courts that relate to Hudood laws and apply to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Anti-secular government

Government funding is available for Islamic clergy and the building and maintenance of mosques. This funding comes from a 2.5% tithe the state levies on all Sunni Muslims. The funds are re-distributed amongst Sunni mosques, madrasahs, and charities. No other religious or non-religious groups are tithed.

It is a constitutional requirement that the president and prime minister be Muslim. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity.

For lawmakers and others to critically discuss the Islamist nature of the law, such as suggesting reform of blasphemy laws (see below) or any broader secular reforms, exposes the critic to potential assassination.
<aeon.co/essays/pakistan-s-political-islamists-tried-to-kill-me>

Education and children’s rights

In some places, schools, teachers and students – girls in particular – have frequently been subject to violence and terrorism by the Taliban and other extremist groups. Many children are unable to attend schools, many schools are run down, and the madrasa, which in some areas provide the only available education, are notorious for teaching revisionist history and hatred of non-Islamic religions and people.

Hate on the curriculum

In state-run schools, Islamic studies are compulsory for all Muslim students. Whilst non-Muslims are not required by law to take Islamic studies, and are offered ethical studies as an alternative in some schools, in practice no alternative to Islamic studies is usually available and by consequence many non-Muslims are required to take Islamic studies.

A report by International Crisis Group (ICG) in 2014 found that Pakistan’s education system is in crisis. Among various problems including millions of children out of school, the report found that education tended to promote a nationalist worldview excluding minority views and beliefs, and that the madrasa sector flourishes, often as a direct response to poor state provision. Madrasa schools are only nominally regulated, and many of these seminary-type schools propagate “religious extremism and sectarian violence”. The report found that: “the state will have to do far more than just increase the numbers of schools and teachers. Curriculum reform is essential and overdue. Provincial governments must ensure that textbooks and teachers no longer convey an intolerant religious discourse and a distorted narrative, based on hatred of imagined enemies, local and foreign.”
<crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/pakistan/education-reform-pakistan>

Both the National Commission for Justice and Peace, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, have reported the existence of textbooks, educational content and teaching that sought to devalue religious minorities in “an alarming number of schools”. In August 2013, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education minister said they would return Quranic passages about jihad to the curriculum.
<uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Pakistan%202014.pdf>

Forced “conversions”

Forced “conversion” to Islam is a serious problem faced by some minorities in the country, usually targeting young women and girls as a way of forcibly marrying them into Muslim families.
<bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29008267>

On 24 November 2016, the Sindh province assembly enacted the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015, proposed by a Hindu minority MP, Mr Nand Kumar Goklani, in 2015. This is Pakistan’s first law criminalizing forced conversion, under which perpetrators face a prison term of up to five years.
<pakistanchristianpost.com/detail.php?hnewsid=6198>

Family, community and society

No such thing as “No Religion” in personal identity or family life

The government designates religious affiliation on identity documents such as passports and in national identity card applications. Applicants must state their religion when applying for a passport. “No Religion” is not accepted as an answer.

Neither civil nor common law marriage are recognised in Pakistan, and religion predominates over family life and law in a variety of extremely prejudicial ways, including:

  • Marriages are registered according to one’s religious identity (although there is no legal recognition of the non-religious, and no mechanism for the government to register marriages of e.g. Hindus and Sikhs).
  • The marriages of non-Muslim men remain legal upon conversion to Islam. However, if a non-Muslim woman converts to Islam and her marriage was performed according to her previous religious beliefs, the marriage is considered dissolved.
  • Children born to non-Muslim women who convert to Islam after marriage are considered illegitimate.
  • The children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert from Islam are considered illegitimate, and the government has the power to take custody of them.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The right to freedom of expression, including media freedom, is frequently violated in Pakistan.

Establishing “blasphemy” laws

Chapter XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code contains a number of sections that institute blasphemy and religious defamation laws: Article 295-A outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”; Article 295-B outlaws the defaming of the Quran; Article 295-C bans the use of insulting remarks about the Prophet; Article 298 prohibits people from saying anything that had the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings; and article 298-B punishes any misuse of epithets, descriptions, or titles reserved for certain holy personages or places.

The blasphemy laws are further bolstered by the Anti-Terrorism Act, which states that any action, including speech, intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Whilst applicable nationwide, the country’s blasphemy laws are used predominantly in the Punjab province.

Blasphemy laws carry the death penalty or life in prison, and tend to target non-believers, religious minorities and dissenting Muslims. Though there has been an effective moratorium on carrying out the death sentence in recent years, dozens of people at least remain on death row, and furthermore those accused of blasphemy are often murdered before or after any trial takes place (see below).

Notably, for a charge of blasphemy to be made in Pakistan an allegation is all that is required – and it may be highly subjective, since the law does not provide clear guidance on what constitutes a violation. Proof of intent or evidence against the alleged is not necessary and there are no penalties for making false allegations.

The real victims of “blasphemy” laws: those who are accused

Most blasphemy cases are either brought by those wishing to undermine minority groups or by those wishing to eliminate individuals against whom they have a grudge. The mere accusation of blasphemy against someone can result in the accused’s life being endangered.

Mullahs will often come to court to intimidate the judiciary, and obtaining a lawyer to ensure a fair trial is often impossible.

Those accused of blasphemy, and who have been acquitted by the courts, most often either flee Pakistan or are assassinated on their release from jail. Clerics and radicals have been found to have brought forward cases of blasphemy after fabricating evidence and facts.

Blasphemy laws are also used specifically against the minority Ahmadi community. Pakistan’s Penal Code 298 contains anti-Ahmadiyya blasphemy legislation. Whilst Ahmadis have the Quran as their holy book, they can be punished with up to three years in prison by just referring to their faith as Islam. At the end of 2013, a 72-year-old doctor and member of the Ahmadiyya community, Masood Ahmad, was imprisoned for ‘posing as a Muslim’ and heresy after being secretly filmed reading from the Koran at his surgery. In May 2014, A Pakistani mob killed an Ahmadi woman member two of her granddaughters after an Ahmadi was accused of posting blasphemous material on Facebook.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, the authorities prosecuted a total of 1,170 blasphemy cases between 1987 and 2012, with scores of new cases being brought every year. In 2013, dozens of people were charged with blasphemy. At least 16 people remained on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 were serving life sentences at at the end of 2013.

“Blasphemy” law: some individual victims

Perhaps the most famous cases of those killed extrajudicially are Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. The then-governor of Punjab state, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in broad daylight at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market on 4 January 4 2011. Qadri said he killed Taseer over what he called the politician’s vocal opposition to blasphemy laws of the country. Two weeks after Taseer was killed, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad. He too was a critic of the blasphemy laws.

The politicians are only the most high profile of numerous other cases in which individuals are either locked up for many years awaiting various long-drawn out stages of the trial process, or are hurt or killed extrajudicially. The victims frequently include children, minorities, and other vulnerable people.

Human rights activists and politicians in Pakistan banded together to successfully secure the release of a jailed 9-year-old Christian boy and his mother, who could have faced the death penalty after they were accused of burning the Quran. According to the London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association, 9-year-old Izhan was at school in the town of Quetta on Oct. 20 when he was accused of burning a copy of Islam’s holy book.
<christianpost.com/news/9-year-old-christian-boy-accused-burning-quran-tortured-four-days-police-finally-released-from-jail-171150/>

In September 2016, Nabeel Chohan, a 16-year-old Christian boy in Pakistan ‘Liked’ an “inappropriate” photograph on Facebook of the Kaaba in Mecca, one of the holiest sites in Islam. He was arrested on blasphemy charges and is awaiting trial. A police official, told the AFP news agency the informant had lodged a complaint over “hurting religious sentiments of Muslims and desecrating the religious place”.
<al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2016/09/pakistan-religion-blasphemy.html>

In July 2016 a Hindu named Amar Lal was arrested on “blasphemy” charges, accused of “desecrating” the Quran. Police claims Amar is suffering from psychotic disorder.
<christiansinpakistan.com/ghotki-a-hindu-booked-over-blasphemy-accusations-local-hindu-community-fearful-of-reprisal/>

On 12 July 2016, police said they were searching for a Christian man, Nadeem Masihm, facing blasphemy charges after a Muslim friend accused him of insulting Islam in a poem. Masihm is alleged to have sent his friend the controversial poem on WhatsApp. The incident occurred in the town of Sara-e-Alamghir in Punjab province. Police said they were having to guard a local church to avoid any violence following the incident.
<ndtv.com/world-news/pakistani-police-on-the-hunt-for-christian-charged-over-poem-1430510>

On 3 June 2016, it was reported that Pakistan’s national TV regulator banned two TV hosts after a discussion about blasphemy and the status of a religious minority sparked controversy. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said it banned Hamza Ali Abbasi, one of the country’s biggest TV stars, and Shabbir Abu Talib from hosting their Ramadan-themed shows after receiving over a thousand complaints. Mr. Abbasi asked Islamic scholars during the broadcast on the channel Aaj TV if the state had the right to declare a group of people infidels or non-Muslims. He referred specifically to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, widely regarded as blasphemers and as non-Muslims.
<blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2016/06/21/pakistan-tv-hosts-banned-after-blasphemy-discussion/>

In January 2016, a 15-year-old boy, Mohammad Anwar, cut off his own hand after being told he was a blasphemer by a local cleric. The boy had raised his hand when the imam asked if anyone did not believe in the prophet, which reportedly the boy misheard. The imam accused him of “blasphemy” in front of the whole congregation, to which the boy responded by going home and cutting off his own hand, before delivering it to the imam on a plate, presumably as a sign of his own contrition for the “blasphemy”. The boy’s self-mutilation was welcomed locally and praised by his own parents.
<independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/pakistani-teenage-boy-cuts-off-own-hand-after-imam-accused-him-of-blasphemy-a6820846.html>

Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, from Gojra, Pakistan, were found guilty in January 2016 of allegedly sending a text message which ‘blasphemed’ against the Prophet Mohammed to their local imam, in 2013. The Christian couple sentenced to death over the ‘blasphemous’ texts, despite being illiterate. Their lawyer said the imam was motivated by a personal grudge, and that the SIM card presented in court was bogus. The couple claim they were tortured into confessing to the crime.
<telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/10751110/Christians-in-Pakistan-sentenced-to-death-over-a-text.html>

In November 2014 a married Christian couple, Sajjad Maseeh (or Shehzad Maish), 27, and Shama Bibi (or Samah), 24, who was pregnant, were attacked by a mob of around 1,200 people after rumors that they had burned verses from the Quran. After their legs were broken to prevent them running, they were set alight and thrown in a kiln. As is often the case, the origin of the rumours have subsequently been linked to an interpersonal conflict, in this case, “revenge for unpaid bills”. The viscerally shocking nature of this case has reverberated through the ‘blasphemy’ law debate in Pakistan, prompting more than usual pressure on police to convict members of the mob who killed them. In November 2016 five of the killers were sentenced to death. An editorial in The Nation broadly welcomed the death sentences for the killers, adding: “Avenging Samah and Shehzad Maish isn’t enough, we must prevent future deaths. The root cause of the problem, the blasphemy laws, are still in place in their nefarious form, as is a politico-religious complex designed to protect them.”
<christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/november/into-fiery-furnace-christians-pakistan-burned-blasphemy.html>
<nation.com.pk/editorials/25-Nov-2016/a-measure-of-atonement>

In March 2014, a Christian man from Lahore, Sawan Masih, was convicted of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad in a row with a Muslim friend. After the allegations surfaced, hundreds of Muslims attacked the Lahore’s Christian Joseph colony, torching homes. His trial was held in jail due to fears for his safety. Masih was sentenced to death. He argues that the real reason for the blasphemy allegation was a property dispute between him and his friend.

In 2013, a girl from a Christian family, Rimsha Masih, spent several weeks in an adult jail (her family said she was 11 years old) after being accused of ‘blasphemy’ by a local Muslim cleric. Following significant national condemnation by Pakistan’s standards, and international concern, the charges were dropped. Rimsha and members of her family were eventually given refuge in Canada. The cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, who had first given police the burned papers as evidence against her, was arrested 1 September 2013, accused by members of his own congregation of desecrating these pages of the Quran himself in order to provoke violence against the local Christian population, a motivation which was in line with some of his previous rhetoric. However, the charges against Khalid Chishti were dropped when witnesses withdrew their accusations against him.
<telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/9530596/Rimsha-Masih-Christian-girl-arrested-for-blasphemy-released-from-Pakistan-prison.html>
<theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/01/pakistan-girl-accused-blasphemy-canada>
<bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23739778>

Muhammad Asghar, a British businessman who returned to live in Pakistan in 2010 was arrested for blasphemy and sentenced to death after he wrote letters claiming he was a prophet. Asghar has a history of mental illness, including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In September 2014, he was shot in the back by a prison guard. There are fears for his personal safety in prison.

“Blasphemy” online

From 2010 onward, the government has been aggressive in its blocking of online “blasphemous” content. For example, perceived blasphemous content on Youtube is blocked by the Pakistani government, and the social-networking site Twitter has also been subject to blocking, as well as complicit in the censoring of material on its platform. In May 2012, Twitter was blocked briefly, and again in September that year. In May 2014, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority requested the removal of some material, much of which mocked Islam and other religions, claiming that it was “blasphemous,” “unethical” and violated Pakistan’s Penal Code. Twitter used its Country Withheld Content tool, which blocks content in a particular nation, to comply and block several dozen Twitter accounts. After international protest, including by the IHEU, in June Twitter restored access to tweets and the accounts it had blocked.
<iheu.org/twittertheocracy-campaign-after-social-network-blocks-blasphemy-in-pakistan/>

Signs of change, for better or worse

In September 2013, the Council of Islamic Ideology recommended against amending the blasphemy laws to add procedural safeguards, noting situations of misuse or fraud could be penalized through other sections of the Penal Code. In December, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) stated that the death penalty is the sole appropriate punishment for blasphemy and recommended the removal of life imprisonment as an option when sentencing. The government considered this recommendation, but those found guilty of ‘blasphemy’ seem to enter a permanent holding situation on death row, under a de facto moratorium.

In a rare call for reform by senior authorities, in November 2014 the Lahore High Court released comments on the Asia Bibi case, saying that in their judgement on the case (16th October) they had had no choice but to uphold the earlier death sentence, but called on the government to change the law to implement higher standards of evidence in such cases.
<worldwatchmonitor.org/2014/11/article_3483230.html/>

In addition a spate of high-profile blasphemy prosecutions (including Asia Bibi and Muhammad Asghar) as well as extrajudicial killings (including Sajjad Maseeh and Shama Bibi) in the second half of 2014, may have spurred some clerics and political leaders to relatively outspoken criticism of the “misuse” of such laws.
<samaa.tv/pakistan/22-Nov-2014/asma-hopes-fall-in-blasphemy-laws-abuse>

In 2015 some “blasphemy” accused were granted pre-trial bail, and there was political discussion of reviewing the sentences of some long-standing “blasphemy” cases, with individuals in prison facing years-long waits for hearings.

In October 2015, the Supreme Court told the killer of Salman Taseer, his own security guard Mumtaz Qadri, that it was not a legitimate defence of murder that he was enforcing the Islamic norm against “blasphemy” by carrying out the assassination, and that criticising “blasphemy” laws could not itself be construed as “blasphemy”. While a previous judgement had overturned Mumtaz Qadri’s death sentence, the Supreme Court restored the conviction for terrorism on 7 October 2015. The IHEU commented that when the death sentence had earlier been quashed, “We were therefore able to give a qualified welcome for what was a “muddled, but realistic best imitation of justice” available. Today, however, the Supreme Court has upheld the earlier terrorism conviction and thus restored the death sentence. As we said in March [2015], not only are we against capital punishment on principle, the risk here is also that this killer — already regarded as a hero by anti-“blasphemy” zealots — will be elevated to full martyr status.” When Mumtaz Qadri was hanged to death on 29 February 2016 the execution sparked street protests and the police were put on high alert; media was instructed not to dwell on the hanging, presumably for fear of fueling disorder among those who regard Mumtaz Qadri as a hero.
<iheu.org/statement-on-terrorism-conviction-against-mumtaz-qadri/>
<dawn.com/news/1242637>
<theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/29/pakistan-hangs-mumtaz-qadri-who-killed-blasphemy-law-governor>

In September 2016, all 46 people accused of attacking a church and the house of Christians in a neighborhood near Lahore’s Sanda police station were cleared. Reports suggest that the mob had attacked the Christian neighborhood after accusing one of the residents of blasphemy. The judge said that as well as police procedural failings, members of the Christian community had not come to court to complain; but advocate Nadim Anthony, a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: “How a Christian can appear before Court when he has no protection? Christians and Ahmadis are the most vulnerable segments in our society and avoid recording statements against Muslims because they fear backlash.”
<deccanchronicle.com/world/neighbours/030916/pakistan-court-clears-all-accused-in-church-attack-case.html>

Apostasy

Pakistan has no specific statutory law that criminalizes apostasy. A 2007 proposed parliamentary bill, which sought to punish male apostates with the death penalty and female apostates with life imprisonment, failed to pass. Nevertheless, some have suggested that the principle that “a lacuna in the statute law was to be filled with reference to Islamic law” could potentially apply to the crime of apostasy.
<loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/index.php#pakistan>

Freedom of the press

Despite all the restrictions on free expression, Pakistan’s media is diverse and varied. This notwithstanding, blasphemy laws and other laws are used by the state to justify censorship. Pakistan is also one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists. They are targeted by non-state actors such as terrorists and criminals, as well as by political, military, and intelligence operatives. In 2016, the International Federation of Journalists reports in 2016 that 102 journalists have been killed in the country since 2005. Impunity in cases concerning murdered journalists remains the norm.
<ifj.org/campaigns/end-impunity-2016/end-impunity-2016-pakistan/>

Highlighted cases

In October 2016, police reportedly registered a case under Section 295-A PPC against a man named only as Aslam alias Saeen Achhu. Aslam is accused of denying “Allah, all the prophets including Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), all the holy books, angels and the prayers, fast, Zakat and Haj.” A petitioner is cited as providing recordings of “blasphemous” conversation with Aslam. (As of November 2016 there is very limited information available on this case.)
<nation.com.pk/national/15-Oct-2016/gcci-scci-stress-joint-efforts-to-boost-exports>

Fauzia Ilyas is the founder of the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (AAAP), which claims over 3,000 supporters. With strict “blasphemy” and apostasy laws, the very existence of the AAAP appears to have been taken as prima facie evidence of a crime. Custody of Fauzia’s daughter was granted to her ex-husband, a devout Muslim, apparently on the basis of Fauzia having left Islam. In 2015 a Lahore court initiated criminal proceedings against Fauzia and issued an arrest warrant. Fauzia has fled to Netherlands where she is currently seeking asylum, along with her colleague and current husband, A. Gilani, a spokesperson for AAAP.

In 2013, Junaid Hafeez, a visiting lecturer of English in Bahauddin Zakaria University (in Multan, the Punjab province), was arrested and jailed on blasphemy charges after a student affiliated with Islami Jamiat Talaba, accused Hafeez of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. There was no evidence for this allegation. Hafeez remains in jail.

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who agreed to defend Junaid Hafeez, has since been murdered. Rehman was special coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Multan. The Hafeez trial had been conducted in jail because of the threat to his life, and Rehman himself received death threats for representing Hafeez and he reported them to the Multan Bar Association, however no measures were taken to provide him with security. His colleagues at the human rights commission also urged the government to provide him with security. In May 2014, two men walked into Rehman’s offices and shot him dead. They have not been caught and activists complain of the government seeking to bury the case.