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Demonstrators carry posters of suspended Chief Justice Chaudhry as they chant anti-Musharraf slogans during a rally in Karachi

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Islam | Gen. Musharraf's maneuvers to stay in office spark a wave of Pakistan persecution

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

In Karachi a pastor and his wife fled the city after rioters killed 49 people in one day. Another pastor in the port city, Pakistan's largest, was poisoned, reportedly by a man pretending to be a new convert to Christianity, who dumped him on a roadside for dead (he survived).

At the other end of the country, in the North-West Frontier Province town of Charsadda, Taliban-linked Islamic leaders issued to local Christians threats of bombings and killings if they do not convert to Islam or leave. In nearby Peshawar a young Pakistani Christian was kidnapped, driven 400 miles and held for 10 days, then suddenly released.

And that was just May.

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Pakistan, ruled more often than not by the military in its 60-year history, is losing its law-and-order grip on its 165 million mostly Muslim citizens. Islamist leaders together with Taliban exiles from Afghanistan are forcing the government of President Pervez Musharraf to give ground, not only on protections against minorities but in overall internal security, in ways eyewitnesses say they never before have seen.

Most ominous for Christian believers, who are not named in this story due to the present dangers they face, is a measure pushed before parliament May 9 creating stiffer penalties for anyone who leaves Islam. Under the new Apostasy Act, a male accused of departing Islam will receive the death penalty. Women apostates will be imprisoned for life, or until they "repent." Those found guilty forfeit all property rights and lose legal custody of their children. And the new measure requires only the testimony of two adult witnesses for a conviction.

At the same time parliament rejected an attempt to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Under the current law, anyone convicted of blaspheming Muhammad in word, deed, or symbol can be sentenced to death, and one found guilty of "insulting Islam" or "desecrating the Quran," to life in prison. The laws are often used to punish and eliminate Christians.

Lawmaker M.P. Bandhara received widespread support in Pakistani media when he proposed incorporating into law instead a statement carried at Pakistan's constitutional assembly in 1947 that "religion would have nothing to do with the business of state." The blasphemy laws are a more recent invention-they have been on the books since the 1970s-but lawmakers rejected Bandhara's effort to return to the founding era.

In the National Assembly Bandhara was booed by the mullahs of the opposition parties known as MMA, an alliance of six Islamist parties. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afgan Niazi said, "The sacredness of our way of life that is more than mere religion must not be touched upon by anyone. This is the parliament of an Islamic State, not a secular one. No one can dare to present a bill here which hurts the sentiments of Muslims."

What was striking to observers about last month's developments was the government reaction to it. According to Pakistan's Daily Times, "The government did not oppose the [apostasy] bill and sent it to the standing committee concerned. If passed, the bill will override all other laws in force at present." Pakistan already has some of the strictest laws forbidding conversion and blasphemy. In the past Musharraf has opposed measures that embolden already entrenched conservative-to-radical Islamic clerics and has stood against further erosion of free speech and minority rights.

But now Musharraf is in political death-throes himself. Unpopular for siding with the United States on terrorism-in spite of the $10 billion in U.S. aid his support has brought the country since 2002-Musharraf is under increasing pressure from MMA and the Islamist leaders it represents.

Further, Musharraf frustrated more than just the radicals when he suspended Pakistan's chief justice in March. Musharraf charged the Supreme Court's Iftikhar Chaudhry with misconduct and removed him from office. The charges include family use of government vehicles and unlawfully helping his son gain admission to medical college. But it is widely believed that Musharraf removed Chaudhry because he prosecuted anti-corruption cases against state-connected businesses and because he stood to block Musharraf's bid to win another five-year term in office later this year, when parliamentary elections are held. Such a move currently is unlawful.

The action against Chaudhry has provoked months of street demonstrations and violence, including the May 12 killings in Karachi, weakening the government and strengthening radical elements. But the recent chaos is more than a spasm of political upheaval, according to Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission: "It is the inevitable consequence of at least two and a half decades of systematic state- and Saudi-sponsored Sunni Islamization which has continued post-9/11 despite all the rhetoric to the contrary."

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