Today, a married couple in Pakistan is languishing apart in separate prisons, unable to see each other or their four children. Shafqat Emmanuel remains paralyzed from the waist down following an accident in 2004. His wife, Shagufta Kausar provided for her family by working as a cleaner. Shafqat and Shagufta lived simple lives on a church compound before their world came crashing down and a years-long nightmare ensued due to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.  

The saga began in June 2013, when a Muslim cleric claimed he received a blasphemous text message from Shagufta’s phone. The cleric said he showed the text to his lawyer, and both subsequently claimed that they received more inflammatory texts from the phone registered to Shagufta. The alleged texts were written in English.

There are a few problems with this dubious story. Shagufta and Shafqat come from a poor background and are illiterate. They could not have crafted such a text in their native Urdu, and certainly not in English. The couple suspects the cleric’s accusation is retaliation for an argument between their children and their neighbors.

Nonetheless, authorities arrested the couple and charged them both with “insulting the Qur’an” (under Section 295-B) and “insulting the Prophet” (Section 295-C). These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively. In April 2014, Shafqat and Shagufta were sentenced to death, and they are still appealing the court’s decision.

Blasphemy laws are an affront to human rights, and Pakistan has proven to be one of the foremost abusers of these laws.

A new report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that, as of December 2019, at least 17 people were on death row after being convicted on blasphemy charges.

Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to religion. Allegations of blasphemy made against religious minorities living in the Muslim world are often utilized to settle unrelated disputes. Religious minorities like Christians are particularly vulnerable to these accusations because of their marginalized place in society.

Unfortunately, blasphemy laws remain in many parts of the world. In its 2020 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that at least 84 countries have blasphemy laws, and even more have broad laws that are used to target speech deemed blasphemous.

The continued existence of blasphemy laws in so many countries makes this a global issue. Twenty-seven countries signed a statement of concern at last year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held by the U.S. State Department, calling upon the governments that utilize blasphemy and apostasy laws to repeal them. The international community should continue to push for the end of blasphemy laws everywhere. It should be high on the agenda for the new International Religious Freedom Alliance spearheaded by the State Department.

Blasphemy laws restrict freedom of speech and freedom of religion—both fundamental human rights. No one should be put on death row for their faith.

To learn more about blasphemy laws around the world, check out FRC’s publication on Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-Conversion Laws.