Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

CHRC holds briefing on religious freedom in South Asia

In a staff briefing sponsored by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and The India Caucus, witnesses discussed the state of religious freedom in South Asia, particularly with respect to followers of Hindu and Islam in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The witnesses represented the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops of Bangladesh, Hindu American Foundation, Ahmadiyya Movement, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The majority of the discussion revolved around the anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that exist in south Asia.

According to Angela Wu, the director of international advocacy at the Becket Fund, and Tad Stahnke of the U.S. Commission on International Religions Freedom, the anti-blasphemy laws are blatantly discriminatory. While governmental rhetoric characterizes the legislation as protecting all religions, preference is actually given to certain religions while others are oppressed, according to Wu and Stahnke. In Pakistan, for example, the anti-blasphemy laws restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion and other rights included in international human rights law. The laws, by their very nature, lend themselves to abuse by those who seek to ensure the prominence of one particular religion, they said. Such laws in Pakistan have recently been used against Younis Masih, a Christian who was recently sentenced to death after being accused of insulting Islam.

In March 2007, Pakistan submitted a resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Council in support of ending the defamation of religions. While the aim was to prosecute offensive language, in reality the legislation allows authorities to pass down lengthy sentences for those who are merely exercising the right to free expression, religion and conscience, the witnesses said. Someone who practices one religion could be accused of insulting another language, especially in countries that specify a state religion. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are said to be consistently exploited for the benefit of the government, and run counter to international human rights norms.

In Bangladesh, discrimination against Hindus has greatly diminished the population of adherents of that faith. In 1961, for example, 18.5 percent of the country’s population was Hindu. Ten years later, 10 million Hindus were forced to flee to India. In 2001, after Bangladesh declared Islam as the state religion, the Hindu population dwindled to 9.5 percent. According to the witnesses, anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws are used in Bangladesh as a way to limit the practice of alternative faiths.

In Afghanistan, the Hindu population was greatly affected by the Taliban regime. The ultra-fundamentalist group forced Hindus to wear yellow arm bands and fly yellow flags above their homes, evoking measures used in Germany during World War II. Now under the current government of President Hamid Karzai, the witnesses said that the Afghan constitution, while rhetorically respecting al religions, has served as a means of discrimination against religious minorities through preferential treatment of Islam.



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