Blasphemy laws fuel violence against Christians in Pakistan
Vigilante killings often follow accusations of profaning Islam
Abdul Rauf, a 22-year-old English teacher in Pakistan, was shot and killed on his way to a meeting with community elders on Aug. 5. He was going to defend himself against accusations from his students, who told local clerics that Rauf committed blasphemy during a lecture at a language center where he worked.
Rauf denied all allegations and apologized for any objectionable words, but he was still asked to attend a jirga, or assembly, of more than 100 leaders who would settle the dispute. Meanwhile, word got out on social media about the accusations. As Rauf made his way to the jirga, masked men attacked him near a graveyard in southern Pakistan. His family received his body for burial but has not filed any complaints with the police.
Pakistan has seen an increase in blasphemy accusations over the past few years, particularly after recent high-profile Quran burnings in other countries. While some Pakistani Muslims accuse other Muslims, the blasphemy accusations disproportionately target Christians, sending them fleeing in fear for their lives. Since Pakistan’s laws lack specifics about what constitutes evidence of blasphemy, the door is open for loose interpretation, misuse, and abuse. In June, the government agreed to a political party’s demands to consider blasphemy an act of terrorism.
Andrew Boyd, spokesperson for Release International, a ministry that works through local churches to help persecuted Christians, says many of the latest accusations of blasphemy stem from the Quran burnings in Sweden and Denmark. Activists in those countries have burned or stomped on copies of the Islamic book in protest of the growing presence of Muslim immigrants in Nordic countries and of Turkey’s initial opposition to Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Turkey dropped its opposition after Sweden agreed to increase counterterrorism efforts against a group that targets the Turkish government. On Thursday, Swedish officials announced that the country raised its terrorist threat status to the second-highest level, higher than at any point since 2016.
In the Pakistani city of Jaranwala in Punjab province, mob violence this week followed allegations that two Christians desecrated pages from a Quran. In protest, a Muslim mob burned eight churches and several homes. Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights said Presbyterian and Salvation Army churches were torched, as well as another church affiliated with the FGA Bible College, a Pentecostal-Charismatic school founded by a Swedish missionary in 1967. Punjab official Amir Mir said authorities detained more than 100 people in connection with the violence.
Bishop Azad Marshall with the Church of Pakistan said the attacks have distressed church leaders and their faith communities. “Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed, having been falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran,” he wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Religious minorities are often the target of blasphemy accusations, Boyd said, and jihadists have called for widespread attacks on Christians. But he added that Muslims also accuse other Muslims of blasphemy, often lobbing allegations after property disputes, minor infractions, or personal grievances.
Pakistanis convicted of blasphemy face punishments ranging from fines to death, depending on the alleged level of irreverence. Even if the accused does not receive the death penalty, Boyd said vigilantes target and kill many Christians charged with blasphemy. Muslim leaders announce accusations over the mosque loudspeaker. Often, a mob forms.
“If you’re lucky, you’re arrested,” said Boyd. “If not, you’re killed.”
Philip Chandi, general secretary of the Pakistan Fellowship of Evangelical Students, said nearly all blasphemy accusations are prompted by revenge. And not everyone gets a fair trial, as evidenced in Rauf’s case. When a police officer accused two Christian boys of blasphemy after an altercation on May 28, Eurasia Review reported that human rights activists called for the boys’ protection from mob violence during and after the cases.
Pakistan codified its blasphemy laws in 1860, when Great Britain ruled the region. Every few years, said Chandi, the ruling party brings the blasphemy law before Parliament in an effort to repeal it and improve international relations. But the opposition party—whichever one it is—stymies the attempt.
In 2018, the far-right party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, led protests to block Asia Bibi from fleeing the country after Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy. Bibi eventually left the country the following year, joining her family in Canada. In 2021, the Pakistani government banned TLP as a terrorist group. But in May this year, the TLP began marching from Karachi to Islamabad in protest. In June, the government signed a deal with the party, lifting the ban and agreeing to indict those accused of blasphemy under the penal code with additional charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. The deal also ensures a fast turnaround on blasphemy trials and appeals, increasing the likelihood of unjust deaths because many people accused of blasphemy languish in prison for years before the court admits their innocence.
Boyd said the stricter laws could ultimately breed more hatred and violence by legitimizing revenge. He pointed out that illiterate people accused of blasphemy because they burned pages of the Quran often didn’t know what they were burning, fueling anger and hatred over the harsh punishments.
But Boyd remains hopeful for Pakistani Christians—and their persecutors. “A lot of the New Testament was written by a persecutor Saul, whose life God turned around,” he points out. “And we’re told to pray for those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.”