Photo: Arrested: Shiite cleric Agha Baqir Al Hussaini. From Facebook.

PAKISTAN: Leading Shiite cleric arrested based onn new blasphemy law

“Bitter Winter” correctly predicted that new penalties against those who “offend the wives and companions of the Prophet” were intended for cracking down on Shiites.

By Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter (06.09.2023) – We wish we had been wrong. But we weren’t. After a test case against a Sunni retired teacher, Pakistan amended last month Article 298-A of its Criminal Code, which is part of its blasphemy laws and punishes those who disrespect “the Prophet’s wives, family, close companions, and the Righteous Caliphs.” The penalty passed  from one month to three years in jail to a minimum of ten years to life imprisonment, plus a fine of one million rupees.

“Bitter Winter” reported that the government had amended Article 298-A under pressure from radical anti-Shiite Sunni movements, and that Shiites would risk severe jail penalties. In fact, in Shia literature one can find curses against Aisha, the third and youngest wife of Muhammad, for her role in denying that Ali, whom the Shiites regard as their founder, was the legitimate successor of the Prophet, and against those companions of the Prophet who sided against Ali.

We were not alarmist, and what we denounced as a possibility has already happened, as soon as the new law entered into force. A prominent Shiite cleric, Agha Baqir al-Hussaini, was arrested in Skardu, the largest city in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

He had presided a meeting in mid-August denouncing the new law and stating that Shiites cannot and will not renounce their criticism of those relatives and companions of the Prophet who denied Ali’s succession. As a result, on August 22, local Sunnis took to the street demanding his arrest.

The Shiite cleric was arrested at the end of August. The arrest generated new and larger protests in Skardu, this time by Shiites. It was the largest protest in the history of the city of Skardu.

Demonstrations became national, as documented on social media, creating a serious risk of sectarian violence.

All this was highly predictable when the blasphemy law was amended. However, the Pakistani government preferred to humor the radical fundamentalists of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistanrather than protecting religious minorities and avoid inter-Islamic conflict.

Photo: Massive protests by Shiites in Skardu supporting Agha Baqir Al Hussaini. From Twitter.


Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

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