Author archives: Cristina Cevallos

Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan Oppress Another Victim

by Arielle Del Turco , Cristina Cevallos

November 10, 2021

Masih, an Arabic word meaning “messiah,” is a common family name among Pakistani Christians. One of them is Stephan Masih, a Pakistani man with a psychological disability. Sadly, Masih is one of too many Christians in Pakistan who has become a victim of the country’s blasphemy laws.

In March 2019, Masih and his family had a dispute with their Muslim neighbors. After the incident, a Muslim cleric accused him of committing blasphemy. The following day, an angry mob surrounded Masih’s home and set it on fire. Instead of arresting the assailants, local police filed a First Information Report against Masih for committing blasphemy and detained him.

Masih has remained in custody since June 2019 and has been denied medical treatment for his mental disabilities. The Lahore High Court is now scheduled to hear an appeal on his bail application (which was previously postponed) on November 10, 2021. Ahead of the hearing, a group of United Nations experts published a statement calling on the government of Pakistan to release Masih:

We call on the authorities [in Pakistan] to urgently review Mr. Masih’s case, and release and drop all charges against him, and ensure protection for him and his family… It is deeply alarming that a mere disagreement between neighbors could lead to the judicial harassment of an individual, based on his religious or other beliefs, and by the use of anti-blasphemy laws which may carry the death penalty.

Blasphemy laws, which prohibit perceived insults against Islam, can be enforced with harsh punishments. Section 295-A of the Pakistani penal code prohibits insulting “religious feelings.” Section 295-B states whoever “defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an” can be punished with life imprisonment. Section 295-C states that insults against the Prophet Muhammad and his family are punishable by life imprisonment or death. These laws are often abused in Pakistan to settle unrelated disputes with non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians, who account for just three million of the country’s 207 million population, are common targets.

Yet, it is not just the Pakistani legal system that uses blasphemy accusations to harm people. Even in cases where charges are not filed, mobs have formed to punish perceived violators of blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, at least 75 people have been murdered by mobs or individuals due to blasphemy allegations since 1990.

In Pakistan, extremists often interpret “insults” to religion to include questioning any tenets of Islam or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, including condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy law. This motivated Mumtaz Qadri—the bodyguard of Governor Salman Taseer—to assassinate his own employer after Taseer spoke up on behalf of Christian blasphemy law victim Asia Bibi and condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Islamic extremists then proceeded to threaten the life of Taseer’s surviving son for continuing his father’s advocacy for Asia Bibi, saying that by doing so, he was “equally involved in the crime.” 

One of the casualties was Pakistan’s minister of minorities affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. After raising concerns on this issue, he stated, “I was told I could be beheaded if I proposed any change, but I am committed to the principle of justice for the people of Pakistan… I am ready to die for this cause, and I will not compromise.” In 2011, two Taliban assassins sprayed the Christian official’s car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a “Christian infidel.”

Blasphemy laws are a global problem. A report by Family Research Council found that at least 70 countries have blasphemy laws. The Pew Research Center found that in 55 percent of countries with blasphemy laws, the government also discriminates against religious minorities. In Pakistan alone, at least 17 Pakistanis were on death row for a blasphemy charge as of 2019. And once charged with blasphemy, it’s difficult for victims to prove their innocence and be released. In fact, because the death penalty is afforded to certain types of blasphemy, courts reject most bail appeals, citing the “severity” of the crime.

So, what can be done to press for the repeal of blasphemy laws and help the victims?

As a part of the United States’ tradition of advocacy for human rights and religious freedom, the U.S. government should prioritize the repeal of these laws. The State Department should also mobilize the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to release religious prisoners of conscience wrongly imprisoned for blasphemy charges.

Individuals can support organizations that advocate for these causes or directly send letters urging the authorities to take measures to ensure the safety of the accused, speed up their trials, and bring to justice those responsible for the extrajudicial executions.

Blasphemy laws continue to destroy the lives of hundreds of people just like Masih. The free world should not stop advocating until all blasphemy laws are repealed, and everyone is free to live out their faith and express their beliefs.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.

Pew Finds High Rate of Global Restrictions on Religion

by Arielle Del Turco and Cristina Cevallos

October 12, 2021

Each year, the Pew Research Center publishes a report assessing the extent to which governments and societies around the world restrict religious beliefs and practices. This year’s report—which examines 198 countries and contains data up through 2019—shows how much more work needs to be done to protect religious freedom globally.

Social Hostility to Religion Declines Slightly

Let’s start with the good news. The report’s Social Hostilities Index measures acts of hostility to religion by private individuals, organizations, or groups in society. Examples of hostility include religion-related terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment, and other forms of intimidation or abuse. In 2018, 53 countries (27 percent) had “high” or “very high” levels of social hostility, but in 2019 this number was reduced to 43 (22 percent), the lowest it has been since 2009.

Religion-related terrorism incidents (such as deaths, physical abuse, displacement, detentions, destruction of property, and fundraising and recruitment by terrorist groups) are also in decline. According to the Global Terrorism Database, 49 countries experienced at least one of these actions. However, 2019 was the fifth consecutive year of declining global terrorism rates. This decline is largely due to ISIS having lost control in many parts of the world, even though it continued to commit attacks such as the one in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in 2019 that killed more than 250 people and injured approximately 500 others.

Afghanistan is the greatest exception to these statistics. In 2019, the number of terrorist incidents by the Taliban in Afghanistan increased. Now that the terrorist group has taken control of the entire country, this trend will likely continue to worsen.

Notably, Christians are still the group most likely to be on the receiving end of religious harassment. In 2019, countries harassing Christians increased from 145 to 153. 

Government Restrictions Remain High

The report’s Government Restrictions Index measures government laws, policies, and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices. In 2019, the number of government restrictions reached its highest level since 2007. Most of the countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions were located either in the Asia-Pacific region or in the Middle East-North Africa region.

Pew’s study reveals that government harassment and interference against religious groups were present in 163 countries (82 percent). All 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region and 91 percent of the European nations had this type of occurrence. These include governments prohibiting certain religious practices, withholding access to places of worship, or denying permits for religious activities or buildings.

High-Tech Threats to Religious Freedom

For the first time, Pew’s study measured governments’ use of online restrictions and advanced technologies (such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and biometric data) to target religious groups. Pew found that 28 countries (14 percent) have some type of online restriction of religious activity, and 10 countries use technology to surveil religious groups. Most of the countries were located in either the Asia-Pacific region or in the Middle East-North Africa region.

For example, in the United Arab Emirates, the government blocked websites with information on Judaism, Christianity, and atheism. Iran launched cyberattacks against religious minorities. China installed surveillance equipment in houses of worship, used facial recognition technology to monitor and collect biometric data on Uyghur Muslims, and installed software on their phones to monitor their calls and messages. 

Government Repression Is Brutally Enforced

Worst of all, Pew found that 48 percent of all nations used force against religious groups in 2019. China, Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria tallied over 10,000 use-of-force incidents each. These incidents include property damage, detention, arrests, ongoing displacement, physical abuse, and killings.

Among the 25 largest nations (which account for 75 percent of the world’s population), Egypt, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Russia recorded the highest overall levels of restrictions and hostilities against religious people.

Conclusion

Pew’s report demonstrates that many governments are attacking religious freedom rather than protecting it as a human right. Although much has changed since 2019, including a global pandemic, government attitudes seem to remain hostile to people of faith. For now, we can rejoice in the moderately good news that social hostility to religion declined slightly even as we take action to combat problematic global trends. Religious freedom for all people everywhere is worth fighting for.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.

What Does the Future Hold for the Pro-life Movement in Mexico?

by Arielle Del Turco , Cristina Cevallos

October 6, 2021

Culturally conservative Mexico made international news last month when its Supreme Court decriminalized abortion. Four Mexican states had already legalized abortion, but the Supreme Court’s decision marks a major shift for a country with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world.

Mexico has a fairly conservative and religious culture. Yet, the Mexican Supreme Court dictated from the top down a decision that likely wouldn’t have passed if put to the Mexican people for a vote. A strong majority (60 percent) of Mexicans oppose abortion.

On September 7, the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously declared some articles of the state of Coahuila’s Penal Code, which penalized those who had or assisted in an abortion, as unconstitutional. Two days later, the same judges invalidated an article of the Sinaloa state constitution, which established: “[t]he State protects the right to life from the moment an individual is conceived.”

But the assault on life in the womb did not stop there. On September 13, the Mexican Supreme Court began to hear arguments concerning a law that seeks to restrict medical professionals’ conscientious objections to participating in abortions. A final ruling has yet to be made. 

This attack on conscience protections is devastating for people of faith, those who believe life begins at conception, and for medical workers whose professional opinions make them reluctant to participate in abortions. In the few Mexican states where abortion is legal, many medical professionals have refused to participate in carrying out abortions. Conscience protections are essential to protecting their freedom to live in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.

The Mexican Supreme Court’s decriminalization ruling implies that there are Mexican women in prison for having abortions. But that’s not the case. According to the National Penitentiary Registry of Mexico, no woman is currently in jail for having an abortion. There are five female abortionists currently serving sentences for carrying out illegal abortions, but even these cases were only prosecuted because they resulted in the death of the mother.

Notably, the chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, Arturo Zaldívar, said, “From now on, a new path of freedom, clarity, dignity, and respect for all pregnant persons, but above all for women, begins.” By referring to “pregnant persons” as opposed to pregnant women, Zaldívar is adopting a dangerous gender ideology that denies the scientific reality of the biological distinctions between the sexes.

Pro-abortion activists hope Mexico’s Supreme Court rulings will put pressure on other countries to take steps in the same direction. Mexico’s decriminalization decision comes right after Argentina’s legalization of abortion and Ecuador’s decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape. Pressure from international organizations is also a factor in abortion’s increasing momentum in Latin America. In Mexico alone, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has invested more than $18 million in abortion advocacy between 2008 and 2016.

In a New York Times op-ed, Melissa Ayala wrote about the Mexican Supreme Court’s decriminalization decision, saying, “The justices said what has long been intuitive to feminist activists: that someone who is not yet born does not have the same protection as someone who already is alive.” This is a disturbing and revealing sentence—one that gets at the heart of the pro-abortion argument. It’s the dangerous assumption that a child in the womb is not already alive and that a woman’s comfort and convenience is worth more than the unborn child’s fundamental right to life.

Sadly, the Mexican legal system is moving towards embracing a culture of death. Yet, there is still reason for hope for the pro-life movement in Mexico. On October 3, thousands of women rallied across Mexico to protest the Supreme Court decision. The pro-life majority should not let radical Supreme Court justices decide the fate of the unborn. Now is the time for pro-lifers in Mexico and across Latin America to make their voices heard.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.

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