Last Updated 30 November 2020

Pakistan is approximately 97% Muslim and the remaining 3% of the population are Christian, Hindu, Buddhists or others.1 The country has suffered chronic sectarian violence against religious and non-religious minorities, with Shia Muslims subjected to the majority of the violence, and many extremely serious incidents against the Christian minority. For individual non-religious persons to speak out is uncommon, but those revealed or alleged to be non-religious tend to provoke swift condemnation.

The legal environment in Pakistan is notably repressive; it has brutal blasphemy laws, systemic and legislative religious discrimination and often allows vigilante violence on religious grounds to occur with impunity.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Article 2 of the Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires that all laws are consistent with Islam. Despite the Constitution’s promise of adequate provisions for minorities to practice their religious beliefs freely, many of Pakistan’s laws and policies restrict freedom of religion or belief.2 The Muslim majority is afforded more protections than the non-religious or minority religious groups. The relatively common sectarian and religiously motivated violence against minorities and individuals in Pakistan often goes unpunished.

The Constitution states that Ahmadis are not considered as Muslims, despite their self-identification as Muslims. Additionally, articles 298(b) and 298(c) of the Penal Code3 prohibit Ahmadis from self-identifying as Muslims, propagating or disseminating materials about their faith, or calling their houses of worship mosques. Ahmadis have been imprisoned simply for sharing Ahmadiyya literature.4

Islam and a confused legal system

The Constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The Constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The Constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the FSC.5

Pakistan’s Penal Code encompasses a number of Islamic legal provisions. The judicial system encompasses several different court systems with overlapping and sometimes competing jurisdictions that reflect differences in civil, criminal, and Islamic jurisprudence. For certain criminal convictions under the Hudood Ordinances,6;; including those for rape, extramarital sex, alcohol, and gambling, the Shariah bench of the Supreme Court and the FSC serve as appellate courts. The FSC has the power to review, of its own accord, cases in lower courts that relate to hudud laws and apply to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Anti-secular government

Government funding is available for Islamic clergy and the building and maintenance of mosques. This funding comes from a 2.5% tax the state levies on all Sunni Muslims. The funds are re-distributed amongst Sunni mosques, madrasahs, and charities. No other religious or non-religious groups are tithed.

It is a constitutional requirement that the president and prime minister be Muslim. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity and affirm their belief in the finality of the prophet Muhammad.7 The Interior Ministry has been critical of both secular and religious parties that have protested against this move.

For lawmakers and others to critically discuss the Islamist nature of the law, such as suggesting reform of blasphemy laws (see below) or any broader secular reforms, exposes the critic to potential

Education and children’s rights

According to the US State Department’s 2019 International Religious Freedom, in Pakistan:

“The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.”9

In state-run schools, Islamic studies are compulsory for all Muslim students.10 Whilst non-Muslims are not required by law to take Islamic studies, and are offered ethical studies as an alternative in some schools, in practice no alternative to Islamic studies is usually available and by consequence many non-Muslims are required to take Islamic studies.11 The state reportedly plans to bring in a compulsory national curriculum12 rolling out in April 2021.13 The first stage is expected to be implemented in years 1-6. Muslim students will be expected to study Islamiat, while non-Muslims – specifically five minority groups – will be obliged to study Religious Education instead from grade 1 onwards. The precise contents of the curriculum are not yet known.

In some places, schools, teachers and students – girls in particular – have frequently been subject to violence and terrorism by the Taliban and other extremist groups.14 Many children are unable to attend schools, many schools are run down, and the madrasas, which in some areas provide the only available education, are notorious for teaching revisionist history and hatred of non-Islamic religions and people.15;

In April 2019, the Pakistani government that it would be taking control of over 30,000 madrasa schools as part of a drive to “mainstream” the Islamic schools and address previously reported concerns regarding the existence of textbooks, educational content and teaching that sought to devalue religious minorities in “an alarming number of schools”.16;;

Forced “conversions”

Forced “conversion” to Islam is a serious problem faced by some minorities in the country, usually targeting young women and girls as a way of forcibly marrying them into Muslim

On 24 November 2016, the Sindh province assembly enacted the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill proposed by a Hindu minority MP, Mr Nand Kumar Goklani, in 2015. This is Pakistan’s first law criminalizing forced conversion, under which perpetrators face a prison term of up to five

Family, community and society

Family courts

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codified legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages.19

According to the United States’ State Department:

“Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized. Under such judgments, children born to a non-Muslim couple could be considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children would be for the husband also to convert to Islam. Under such judgments, the children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group could be considered illegitimate, and the government could take custody of the children. The law does not speak on any of these practices.”20

No such thing as “No Religion” in personal identity or family life

The government designates religious affiliation on identity documents such as passports and in national identity card applications. Applicants must state their religion when applying for a passport. “No Religion” is not accepted as an answer.21

Neither civil nor common law marriage are recognised in Pakistan, and religion predominates over family life and law in a variety of extremely prejudicial ways, including:

  • Marriages are registered according to one’s religious identity (although there is no legal recognition of the non-religious, and no mechanism for the government to register marriages of e.g. Hindus and Sikhs).
  • The marriages of non-Muslim men remain legal upon conversion to Islam. However, if a non-Muslim woman converts to Islam and her marriage was performed according to her previous religious beliefs, the marriage is considered dissolved.
  • Children born to non-Muslim women who convert to Islam after marriage are considered illegitimate.
  • The children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert from Islam are considered illegitimate, and the government has the power to take custody of them.

Freedom House states that, “Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom have not provided effective safeguards against discriminatory legislation, social prejudice, and sectarian violence.” Hindus have been vulnerable to kidnapping and forced conversion. Furthermore, religious minorities are targets for blasphemy accusations.22

Discrimination against women and minorities

Women are placed at a disadvantage under personal status laws and face discrimination in practice.23

LGBTQI+ individual face discrimination and violence. Article 377 of the Penal Code criminalizes “intercourse against the order of nature”, which is believed to deter people from acknowledging or publicizing their identity. Transgender and intersex people can register as a “third gender” in official documents, and some were recognized in the 2017 census. In 2018, Parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, granting transgender people the right to chose their gender and to have that recognized in official documents and the prohibition of depriving transgender people rights such as the right to vote.24 However, it is reported that they face discrimination with regards to housing and employment in addition to violence and harassment.25 At least 65 transgender women have been killed since 2015.26

According to Amnesty International, “In recent years, [Hindus] have faced increasing marginalization, with individuals facing false accusations of “blasphemy” – a crime that carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan – attacks on temples and shops, and the horrific abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage of hundreds of young Hindu women.”27

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The right to freedom of expression, including media freedom, is frequently violated in Pakistan. The 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act has given the telecommunication authority unchecked powers to censor material online, often justified by an intention to remove blasphemous and pornographic content.28

Establishing “blasphemy” laws

Chapter XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code contains a number of sections that institute blasphemy and religious defamation laws: Article 295-A outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”; Article 295-B outlaws the defaming of the Quran; Article 295-C bans the use of insulting remarks about the Prophet; Article 298 prohibits people from saying anything that had the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings; and article 298-B punishes any misuse of epithets, descriptions, or titles reserved for certain holy personages or places.29

The blasphemy laws are further bolstered by the Anti-Terrorism Act, which states that any action, including speech, intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by imprisonment.30 Whilst applicable nationwide, the country’s blasphemy laws are used predominantly in the Punjab province, where local authorities have, over the course of 2020, repeatedly sought to censor expressions deemed “blasphemous” including text books.31

Blasphemy laws carry the death penalty or life in prison, and tend to target non-believers, religious minorities and dissenting Muslims. Though there has been an effective moratorium on carrying out the death sentence in recent years, dozens of people remain on death row, and furthermore those accused of blasphemy are often murdered before or after any trial takes place (see below).

Notably, for a charge of blasphemy to be made in Pakistan an allegation is all that is required – and it may be highly subjective, since the law does not provide clear guidance on what constitutes a violation. Proof of intent or evidence against the alleged is not necessary.32

The real victims of blasphemy laws: those who are accused

Most blasphemy cases are either brought by those wishing to undermine minority groups or by those wishing to eliminate individuals against whom they have a grudge. The mere accusation of blasphemy against someone can result in the accused’s life being endangered.

Mullahs will often come to court to intimidate the judiciary, and obtaining a lawyer to ensure a fair trial is often impossible. In a recent incident, in July 2020,  an Ahmadi man was shot dead in court while standing trial for “blasphemy.”33

Those accused of blasphemy, and who have been acquitted by the courts, often either flee Pakistan or are assassinated on their release from jail. Further those who represent alleged blasphemers run the risk of being accused of apostasy. In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, lawyer for Junaid Hafeez was killed for representing him.34

Prosecuting those who commit murder in the name of winning retribution against ‘blasphemers’ is also problematized by Islamists and others who intimidate or threaten prosecutors. In 2017 the lead prosecutor of the killers of Mashal Khan (see Highlighted Cases below) was forced to quit reportedly under extreme pressure from the families of the

Blasphemy laws are also used specifically against the minority Ahmadi community. Article 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code contains anti-Ahmadiyya blasphemy legislation. Whilst Ahmadis have the Quran as their holy book, they can be punished with up to three years in prison by just referring to their faith as Islam. At the end of 2013, a 72-year-old doctor and member of the Ahmadiyya community, Masood Ahmad, was imprisoned for ‘posing as a Muslim’ and heresy after being secretly filmed reading from the Quran at his surgery. In May 2014, a Pakistani mob killed an Ahmadi woman and two of her granddaughters after an Ahmadi was accused of posting blasphemous material on Facebook.

“Blasphemy” law: some individual victims

Perhaps the most famous cases of those killed extrajudicially are Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. The then-governor of Punjab state, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in broad daylight at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market on 4 January 2011. Qadri said he killed Taseer over what he called the politician’s vocal opposition to blasphemy laws of the country. Two weeks after Taseer was killed, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad. He too was a critic of the blasphemy laws.36

The politicians are only the most high profile of numerous other cases in which individuals are either locked up for many years awaiting various long-drawn out stages of the trial process, or are hurt or killed extrajudicially. The victims frequently include children, minorities, and other vulnerable people.

Human rights activists and politicians in Pakistan banded together to successfully secure the release of a jailed 9-year-old Christian boy and his mother, who could have faced the death penalty after they were accused of burning the Quran. According to the London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association, 9-year-old Izhan was at school in the town of Quetta on 20 October 2016 when he was accused of burning a copy of Islam’s holy

On 3 June 2016, it was reported that Pakistan’s national TV regulator banned two TV hosts after a discussion about blasphemy and the status of a religious minority sparked controversy. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said it banned Hamza Ali Abbasi, one of the country’s biggest TV stars, and Shabbir Abu Talib from hosting their Ramadan-themed shows after receiving over a thousand complaints. Mr. Abbasi asked Islamic scholars during the broadcast on the channel Aaj TV if the state had the right to declare a group of people infidels or non-Muslims. He referred specifically to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, widely regarded as blasphemers and as

In November 2014, a married Christian couple, Sajjad Maseeh (or Shehzad Maish), 27, and Shama Bibi (or Samah), 24, who was pregnant, were attacked by a mob of around 1,200 people after rumors that they had burned verses from the Quran. After their legs were broken to prevent them running, they were set alight and thrown in a kiln. As is often the case, the origin of the rumours have subsequently been linked to an interpersonal conflict, in this case, “revenge for unpaid bills”. The viscerally shocking nature of this case has reverberated through the ‘blasphemy’ law debate in Pakistan, prompting more than usual pressure on police to convict members of the mob who killed them. In November 2016, five of the killers were sentenced to death. An editorial in The Nation broadly welcomed the death sentences for the killers, adding: “Avenging Samah and Shehzad Maish isn’t enough, we must prevent future deaths. The root cause of the problem, the blasphemy laws, are still in place in their nefarious form, as is a politico-religious complex designed to protect them.”;

In two separate incidents in 2019, mobs attacked Hindu properties and places of worship in the southern Sindh province after allegations of “blasphemy” were made against a Hindu school principal and a Hindu veterinarian.40

“Blasphemy” online

From 2010 onward, the government has been aggressive in its blocking of online “blasphemous” content. For example, perceived blasphemous content on YouTube is blocked by the Pakistani government, and the social-networking site Twitter has also been subject to blocking. In May 2012, Twitter was blocked briefly, and again in September that year. In May 2014, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority requested the removal of some material, much of which mocked Islam and other religions, claiming that it was “blasphemous,” “unethical” and violated Pakistan’s Penal Code. Twitter used its Country Withheld Content tool, which blocks content in a particular nation, to comply and block several dozen Twitter accounts. After international protest, including by Humanists International, in June Twitter restored access to tweets and the accounts it had

Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or
offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.42

Signs of change… and fading hope

In the past several years there have been a few preliminary efforts by responsible parties to reign in the malign influence of ‘blasphemy’ laws in Pakistan. However, such efforts have often been countered by Islamist voices and by pressure in the opposite direction.

In September 2013, the Council of Islamic Ideology recommended against amending the blasphemy laws to add procedural safeguards, noting situations of misuse or fraud could be penalized through other sections of the Penal Code. In December 2013, the FSC stated that the death penalty is the sole appropriate punishment for blasphemy and recommended the removal of life imprisonment as an option when sentencing. The government considered this recommendation, but those found guilty of ‘blasphemy’ seem to enter a permanent holding situation on death row, under a de facto moratorium.

In 2017, the High court in Islamabad asked the Pakistani government to make changes to the laws in order to prevent people from being falsely accused of blasphemy. The judicial request, while not demanding a repeal of the law, asked for the same punishment for those who falsely allege blasphemy as for those who commit the crime. Currently, the false accuser faces imprisonment of up to between two years and life, although such a sentence is rare. This request however has mostly been ignored by

Asia Bibi was the most prominent ‘blasphemy’ prisoner in recent times. A “lower-caste” Christian farm worker accused of ‘blasphemy’ by neighbours who objected to her drinking water from a particular well. The charge in 2009 lead initially to a death sentence in 2010, followed by years in indefinite detention, as is the fate of many ‘blasphemy’ convicts in the country.

Asia Bibi was eventually released from jail in 2019 after being cleared of charges in October 2018. The court’s decision to drop the blasphemy charges in 2018 was met with violent demonstrations by extremists calling for Asia’s beheading, which paralyzed cities across Pakistan for several days. In order to stop the violence, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with the protesters, allowing them to petition against the Supreme Court’s judgement. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the challenge to its October

While her release comes as some good news, blasphemy law remains unchanged. Asia Bibi herself has attempted to draw attention to the issue, stating that: “There are many other cases where the accused are lying in jail for years and their decision should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them.”


Pakistan has no specific statutory law that criminalizes apostasy. However, renouncing Islam is
widely considered by clerics to be a form of;

Freedom of the press

Despite all the restrictions on free expression, Pakistan’s media is diverse and varied. This notwithstanding, blasphemy laws and other laws are used by the state to justify censorship. Journalists are targeted by non-state actors, as well as by political, military, and intelligence operatives.47 In 2019, four journalists and bloggers were killed in relation to their reporting. In fear of their lives, journalists increasingly self-censor themselves.48 Impunity in cases concerning murdered journalists remains the norm.49

Highlighted cases

Mashal Khan, a student who referred to himself as a ‘humanist’ on his Facebook page, was murdered by his fellow university students for alleged blasphemy.50; According to Pakistani media, a large group of students were involved in the attack that occurred on 13 April 2017 after Khan was accused of posting “blasphemous” content online. Khan had called himself “The Humanist” on his Facebook page. Khan appears to have posted routinely against discrimination and in favour of human dignity. Khan was reportedly shot in the head and then beaten with sticks. Video footage circulated on social media showed his lifeless body being attacked. Police were reportedly present during the attack but claimed they were unable to intervene due to the large number of attackers present. The official police report into Mashal’s death says there is no evidence supporting any blasphemy allegation. 57 suspects went on trial in 2017. The court convicted 31 people, sentenced one individual to death, two more to life imprisonment, while acquitting 26 individuals.51 Mashal Khan’s father, Iqbal Khan, is reported to have said he rejected any attempt at “reconciliation” by the families of those who killed his son, saying “If someone wants it [reconciliation] then he should watch the videos of the brutal killing of my son.”

In January 2017, several bloggers and activists accused of atheism or blasphemy were forcibly disappeared apparently by state security services.53 When they were released, some reported having been tortured in detention.

In October 2016, police reportedly registered a case under Section 295-A of the Penal Code against a man named only as Aslam alias Saeen Achhu. Aslam was accused of denying “Allah, all the prophets including Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH), all the holy books, angels and the prayers, fast, Zakat and Haj.” A petitioner is cited as providing recordings of “blasphemous” conversation with Aslam. At the time of writing, the status of the case remains unclear.54

Fauzia Ilyas is the founder of the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (AAAP), which claims over 3,000 supporters. With strict “blasphemy” and apostasy laws, the very existence of the AAAP appears to have been taken as prima facie evidence of a crime. Custody of Fauzia’s daughter was granted to her ex-husband, a devout Muslim, apparently on the basis of Fauzia having left Islam. In 2015 a Lahore court initiated criminal proceedings against Fauzia and issued an arrest warrant. Fauzia has fled to the Netherlands where she is currently seeking asylum, along with her colleague and husband, A. Gilani, a spokesperson for AAAP.

In 2013, Junaid Hafeez, a visiting lecturer of English in Bahauddin Zakaria University (Multan, Punjab province) was accused by a student affiliated with Islami Jamiat Talaba of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Hafeez was arrested and jailed on blasphemy charges. Since June 2014, he has been kept in solitary confinement, in conditions that were described as ‘extreme’ between 2018-2019.55 His trial, that has involved eight different judges, was lengthy and incurred severe delays since May 2014, following the murder of Junaid’s counsel, Rashid Rehman (see below). In December 2019, it was reported that Hafeez was sentenced to death for blasphemy.56

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who agreed to defend Junaid Hafeez, was murdered. Rehman was special coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Multan. The Hafeez trial had been conducted in jail because of the threat to his life, and Rehman himself received death threats for representing Hafeez and he reported them to the Multan Bar Association, however no measures were taken to provide him with security. His colleagues at the human rights commission also urged the government to provide him with security. In May 2014, two men walked into Rehman’s offices and shot him dead.57 They have not been caught and activists complain of the government seeking to bury the case.


2, 7
3, 29
5, 9, 19, 20, 21, 42
22, 25, 28, 49
23, 26, 48
27, 32, 40

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