As Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Member, Fr Paul Devitt and Chief Executive Officer, Sandie Cornish prepare to fly to Pakistan for a solidarity visit to the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, they received news today of the detention of Church justice and peace workers in Karachi.

“A Catholic priest Fr. Arnold Heredia (60) and a Catholic layperson Mr. Alsam Martin (44) were among those detained on January 10 for taking part in a protest against the blasphemy laws held in Karachi. Fr. Arnold Heredia has served in human rights organizations for over two decades and he is respected in civil society. Our colleagues inform us that an application for the release of Fr Heredia and Mr Martin on bail was rejected on January 11 and that the court ordered the physical remand of the detainees till January 16th, 2001. The Committee for Justice & Peace in Karachi intended to take the question to the High Court today”, said Ms Cornish.

“The National Commission for Justice & Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan is the equivalent of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council here in Australia.  The NCJP inform us that they issued a press statement about the incident yesterday.  They are expressing deep concern over the use of brute force including baton charging and tear gas, and the detention of people engaged in apeaceful procession against the blasphemy laws”, she explained.

According to the Pakistani Church statement:

"The act of the administration (i.e. the detentions) is gruesome and their action unjustified because the procession was totally peaceful and exercised their constitutional right of expression.

The anger of the people against blasphemy laws is genuine and based on witness of people being illegally and unjustly murdered, their properties looted, their places of worship destroyed (as in Khanewal /Shantinagar) and people being forced to leave the country on pretext of blasphemy charges.

We reiterate our faith in building a sectarianism and violence free Pakistan. However it is imperative to do away with all discriminatory laws including blasphemy laws and separate electorates if Pakistan is to make any progress.

Fr. Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, Director, NCJP, Group Capt. (R) Mr. Cecil Chaudhry (SJ & S Bst.) and Peter Jacob, Executive Secretary of the Commission strongly condemn this action and demanded unconditional release and withdrawal of cases against the protestors, who include, long time human rights campaigners, Fr. Arnold Heredia and Mr. Aslam Martin of Idara-Aman-o-Insaf Karachi. We also demand that the present government should take these affirmative steps to stamp out religious intolerance."

“It is sobering to receive this news so close to our departure for Pakistan, but it is also a timely reminder of the reasons for which we are undertaking this solidarity visit.  We hope to learn more about the situation of minorities in Pakistan, and to reflect with our colleagues there on how Catholics in Australia can best express their solidarity”, said Ms Cornish.

“In May 1998 the sacrifice of Bishop John Joseph drew international attention to the human rights situation of minorities in Pakistan.

“Pakistan is an Islamic State in which Christians and Hindus make up about 2% of the population, and, as is common throughout Asia, are often poor, marginalized people.  All religious minorities suffer discrimination in Pakistan.  As well as Christians and Hindus these minorities include Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, and certain Islamic groups such as Ahmadis.

“The Pakistan Penal Code allows the imposition of the death penalty for any person convicted of making derogatory remarks about Islam or its Holy Prophet Mohammed.  While blasphemy laws exist in many places around the world (including New South Wales), they are rarely applied.

“Pakistan’s Constitution provides a number of clear legal protections for freedom of speech and for religions other than Islam.  But the rule of law in Pakistan is tenuous and corruption is a fact of life.  Despite a large number of blasphemy cases, no one has yet been executed for blasphemy under Pakistani law.  Deaths have occurred as a result of mob violence before trial or following acquittal.  The pattern is often one of a local dispute resulting in a charge in a local court resulting in a conviction, then this being overturned on appeal.  Some of the cases have glaring evidential problems and the obvious presence of ulterior motives by the accusers.

“The main problem with the blasphemy laws in Pakistan appears to be the misuse of the law by people with a grievance, and corruption on the part of local officials and judges.  The higher levels of the Pakistani legal system apparently cope reasonably well in a very difficult political environment”, she explained.