Imagine being hung upside down by your feet. Electric wires are tied around your ankles and you’re threatened repeatedly with electrocution. In addition, you are frequently pulled from your cell so that the police can beat you viciously.
Because someone accused you of making inflammatory statements about God. And even though your accuser later recanted his allegation, you were still “tried” for the crime of blasphemy, convicted and then sentenced to life imprisonment. Think about that: spending the rest of your life in prison for the “crime” of speaking your mind.
It’s absolutely incomprehensible. Especially for those of us privileged to live in America where we too often take our First Amendment-guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of religion for granted. As an American, you can be excused for asking how someone could be imprisoned – or worse — just for something he or she has said or written.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the term, blasphemy essentially means showing disrespect or contempt for a deity. While you’d likely offend a number of people by engaging in blasphemy, your right to do so in the U.S. is nevertheless protected by the previously mentioned First Amendment.
Yet in far too many countries (even one would be too many), blasphemy is illegal and the consequences are often severe. In many of those countries, being hauled off to jail for expressing a minority view about religion is a shockingly common occurrence. And the level of “proof” for such a crime can be astonishingly low.
In the United States, there’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In too many other countries, when it comes to blasphemy there’s guilt based on nothing but doubt if you happen to be a member of a religious minority … like a Christian in Pakistan.
Recently the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report detailing Pakistan’s history of violence against religious freedom. The findings are deeply troubling – in just the last 18 months, the commission documented 203 incidents of violence in the name of religion, resulting in some 1,800 casualties and more than 700 deaths.
One of those cases involves a Seventh-day Adventist whose situation is recounted above to us from his lawyer (although the alleged insults involved the Prophet Muhammad). Accused of blasphemy by authorities in Pakistan despite the accuser both recanting his testimony and stating that the police forced him to level the allegation in the first place, Sajjad Masih was convicted of blasphemy and this month was sentenced to life in prison. There remains zero evidence supporting the charges.
Sad to say, a conviction based on no evidence is not rare in a case like this, not in a country like Pakistan where torture of Christians and other religious minorities is all too common. And while Masih’s sentence of lifetime incarceration is deeply disturbing, it’s not the most pressing problem.
Blasphemy laws themselves are the key issue. No matter what god the majority population in a country chooses to worship, making dissent by minority faiths a criminal offense is a terrible idea, for all kinds of reasons. To suggest that your god is happy to rule by coercion, happy to attempt to force people to follow through any means necessary — even torture or death — is beyond folly.
While Sajjid Masih is a deeply troubling current example of abusive enforcement of blasphemy laws – and I would encourage all people of faith to pray that his sentence is reversed and that Masih be released – there is a bigger picture to keep in focus. Laws restricting religious freedom are a scourge anywhere they exist, and on that point, the world’s citizens (even those who profess no faith at all) – must make their voices heard, and increase the pressure on governments that seek to restrict religious liberty around the world.
Dwayne Leslie is Director of Legislative Affairs, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.