Christian group to hold conference on Pakistan blasphemy law

GENEVA: An influential Christian Church organisation will hold an international conference in Geneva next month on Pakistan's blasphemy law, after an 11-year-old Pakistani Christian was detained on accusations of defaming Islam.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of Rifta Masih, accused by Muslim neighbours of burning verses from the Koran, Islam's holy book.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said the conference was intended to give a global platform to religious minorities in Pakistan "who are victimised in the name of its controversial blasphemy law" in cases which had brought death penalties and "mob-instigated violence".

It will be addressed by representatives of the minorities: Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, dissenting Islamic sects - including Ahmadis and Shias, and by civil society groups defending them.

The WCC said officials from the United Nations, where special human rights investigators on religious freedom have often criticised Pakistan's blasphemy law, would also attend. But Pakistani diplomats in Geneva have not been invited.

The conference, from Sept. 17-19, will be held during a sitting of the U.N. Human Rights Council where Pakistan, as spokesman for the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, regularly complains that Muslims are persecuted in the West.

"The public hearing aims to heighten discussions at international levels on the deteriorating situation of the human rights of minorities in Pakistan and the misuse of the blasphemy law," said WCC official Mathews George Chunakara.

The WCC, which links 349 Protestant and Orthodox Church bodies representing more than 560 million Christians in some 110 countries, said the gathering had been planned for some time and was not directly connected to Rifta Masih's case.

She was detained last week in Islamabad after mobs surrounded a police station where she was in protective custody.

The incident was followed by the forced exodus of several hundred Christians from the poverty-stricken suburb of the Pakistani capital after local mosques reported what the girl was alleged to have done over their loudspeakers.

"This is just the latest in a series of similar incidents going back many years. Some cases are reported but many go unreported," said George, who heads the WCC's commission on international affairs.

Pakistan's President Asif Al Zardari has called on officials for a report on the girl's arrest, which has brought protests from Amnesty International, British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund, and the global humanist body IHEU, among others.

"This latest affair just highlights the total hypocrisy of Pakistan, and its supporters, in the Human Rights Council," said Roy Brown, chief representative at the U.N. in Geneva of the IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union.





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