By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ISLAMABAD/LONDON (BosNewsLife)-- Islamic militants have threatened to kill the director of a Christian advocacy group in Pakistan because he criticized controversial anti-blasphemy legislation on Pakistani television networks, his organization said Friday, March 25.
Joseph Francis, who leads the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) in Pakistan, said he received death threats after speaking about the "misuse" of the law to punish innocent people, including Christians, on programs 'Policy Matters' of Duniya TV and Kal Tak aired by the Express TV channel.
"After the murder of Punjab [province] Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti in the last few months, these threats are being taken extremely seriously," the group's British affiliate CLAAS UK told BosNewsLife in a statement.
It was not immediately clear who threatened him. However suspected Islamic militants who killed Bhatti in Islamabad on March 2 left leaflets at the scene saying terror group al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province would kill all those openly opposing the anti-blasphemy legislation.
They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the law.
"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," said the note, which did not name any other targets.
Despite the dangers, the publicly vocal Francis said he is refusing to end his campaign against the controversial legislation. "Even though I am receiving threats to my life, as a soldier of Christ I am willing to stand up for the rights of those persecuted and pressed down by these unjust laws, even if the ultimate goal demands my blood too," he added in remarks obtained by BosNewsLife.
"I know I have opposition from the religious extremists who want to stop me from defending my brothers and sisters in Christ from all kinds of persecution, but I will continue my struggle for the repeal of blasphemy and other Islamic discriminatory laws."
Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty or life imprisonment, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.
The law stipulates that "derogatory remarks" about Prophet Mohammad, "either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."
CLAAS and other organizations say Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan's population, have been especially concerned about the legislation as it offers them no protection. Convictions hinge on witness testimony and often these are linked to personal vendettas, they say.
Among those sentenced to death is a Christian mother, 45-year-old Asia Bibi, who allegedly made "derogatory remarks" about Islam while working on a farm, charges she strongly denies.
The European Union is among those expressing concerns about Bibi, who has said she may be killed in her prison while awaiting an appeal against her death sentence.
Earlier in December, a pro-Taliban Muslim cleric offered a $5,800 reward to anyone who killed Bibi.
Although blasphemy convictions have been often thrown out on appeal after lengthy procedures, angry mobs have killed many many accused of blasphemy.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned to death, according to rights activists. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
Last July, Christian brothers Rashid Emmanuel and Sajid Masih Emmanuel, accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad, were shot to death outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad.
The attacks confirmed the impression that a conviction or even an accusation under this law is often a death sentence, activists said. Other Christians have also been targeted for openly expressing their faith in Christ, added CLAAS UK.
In one of the latest incident reported by BosNewsLife, two Christians were shot and killed in an attack Monday, March 21, on the Solvation Army church in the Hyderabad area of Pakistan's Sindh Province.
The victims were identified as 47-year-old father of four Yunis Ilyas and a 21-year-old newly-wed, Jameel Masih. Two others were injured in Monday's attack in the mainly Christian colony of Hoor Camp, one of whom remains in a critical condition, Christians said.
CLAAS UK Director Nasir Saeed told BosNewsLife his group has urged Christians to "remember" the troubled Islamic nation of 170 million people in their "daily prayers".