Last year, while the world in general and Pakistan in particular was grappling with the incidence of the novel coronavirus and its devastating effects on nearly all sectors from health to economy, it seems the religious extremism plaguing society did not take a break and instead worked overtime.

As per the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), the preceding year witnessed a record rise in the number of blasphemy cases registered in the country — at least 200.

The NGO which works for minority rights has stated in a recently released report that at least 1,855 people have been accused of committing blasphemy under various sections of the law from 1987 to 2020.

According to the report, in 2020, 70% of the total blasphemy cases were registered against Muslims; including a whopping 75% against members of the Shia community. The remaining cases include 20% against the Ahmadiyya community, 3.5% against Christians and one percent against Hindus. The religious identity of the remaining accused is unknown.

Among the cases, the highest number has been recorded in Punjab province at 76%, followed by 19% in Sindh.

As is a common, dreaded feature surrounding blasphemy cases, the report records a total of 78 extrajudicial killings, of which 42 were Muslims, 23 Christians, and nine people from the Ahmadiyya community. Most of such killings usually occur at the hands of violent mobs, before any legal determination of the alleged crime.

Explaining how the report was put together, CSJ Executive Director Peter Jacob explained that the data was sourced from news reports as well as from police cases. “Out of 200 FIRs [First Information Reports], 140 were registered against Shias from July to August during the Islamic month of Muharram.” He added that the data leaves no doubt about the deep sectarian issues prevalent in the country.

However, Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman and the prime minister’s special representative on interreligious harmony, Tahir Ashrafi, rejected the report and termed it baseless and biased. “The report is inauthentic and serves vested interests,” he alleged, adding that no FIR was registered under the controversial Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws last year. Explaining further, he said, “The state takes action against those who violate the law. FIRs were registered against hatemongers spreading venomous propaganda on social media. Additionally, India is also conspiring against Pakistan and wishes to see a sectarian divide.”

Shia community leader Mujahid Gardezi claimed that they were being targeted in the garb of ‘controlling sectarianism in the country’. “For centuries sectarian differences have existed and will remain forever. But now some elements are escalating these differences and it is the duty of the state to stop such elements from fanning a hostile environment in the country,” he added.

Human rights activist Kapil Dev asserted that the state has failed to foment interfaith harmony in the country. “A Hindu born in Pakistan is as much a child of the soil as any Muslim and must be treated as such,” he asserted.

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