VATICAN CITY (CNS): The blasphemy law in Pakistan, often used by Muslim extremists to foment violence, hangs like “the sword of Damocles” over Christians and members of other minority religions, a Vatican official said.
The Vatican’s apostolic nuncio in Pakistan Archbishop Adolfo Yllana said he feared that worsening tensions between the Muslim majority and Christians could lead to additional violence.
He was meeting in mid-August with top Pakistani officials to discuss the tense inter-religious situation.
Archbishop Yllana made the comments in an interview on August 12 with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, following an attack on a Christian community on August 1 that left eight people dead.
A mob of Muslims set fire to Christian homes after a false rumour spread that a Quran, the sacred book of Islam, had been desecrated.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law severely punishes vaguely defined insults to the prophet Mohammed or the Quran.
“In practice, the law against blasphemy has become an easy instrument to accuse Christians of any type of illegality,” Archbishop Yllana said.
It’s enough, for example, that a Christian doesn’t pay a debt for him to be accused of blasphemy – and from there, it’s a short step to violence.
“I’m afraid that unless there is a change there will be more violence.
“Above the heads of Christians and followers of other religious minorities hangs the sword of Damocles, represented by the blasphemy law.”
Church leaders in Pakistan have appealed for the abrogation of the law.
The archbishop said in recent years there had been a worsening of relations between Muslims and all religious minorities in Pakistan.
Acts of violence and intolerance against religious minorities were common and were often unreported by the media, he said.
He blamed some Muslim clerics for inciting the violence.
“In the mosques of some cities the imams use megaphones to broadcast diatribes against the minorities. The (Muslim) faithful get worked up and become violent,” he said.
He said the rising tensions demonstrated that inter-religious dialogue in Pakistan has not been effective at the grassroots level.
“In Pakistan we need to bring dialogue to the people. The mentality has to change, and a culture of tolerance has to be spread.
“This is an essential condition, and without it Pakistan risks falling into a spiral of violence,” he said.
Up to now, he said, dialogue has remained at the level of religious leaders.
But at the local level, many Pak-istanis have little respect for someone whose religious beliefs are different from their own.
In some areas of the country, he said, Christians are still seen as “impure”.
Education was the key to a much-needed cultural transformation toward reconciliation and peace, he said.