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The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is banning the name of Jesus Christ from any text message sent in the country.
The government’s telecommunications agency has given mobile phone companies a list of 1,695 words and informed them that they have seven days to implement filters in their systems that would block the transmission of the words.
The official list includes a number of English language slang terms for sexual acts, religious words and other words Pakistani religious authorities consider obscene.
International Christian Concern’s Jonathan Racho says the move is a step beyond Pakistan’s previous anti-Christian actions.
“You have to remember that this is a government that controls a lot of activities in the country, including mobile companies,” Racho said.
“It’s very easy for them to contact the mobile companies and give them
the list of the words that can’t be transmitted over the airwaves. It is doable if the government wants them to do it.”
But he said the move already has been met with “an outcry from Christians from many parts of the world.”
Racho said it remains to be seen how the government will prosecute violations. Pakistan has an infamous law that bans the defaming of any recognized religion but in practice applies only to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. Penalties for violation of the law include death.
“I don’t think that use of the name of Jesus or any of those words will be made a part of the blasphemy law,” Racho said. “I also don’t think the government wants to prosecute anyone who sends a message with one of the seventeen hundred words on the list.
“If the words coming through question Muhammad, then the messages will automatically fall under the existing blasphemy laws,” he explained.
Opposition to the texting restriction is also coming from government officials.
A Christian member of the Sindh state’s parliament, Salim Khursheed Khokhar, introduced a resolution to overturn the ban on the words, but his motion has been rejected.
The major concern for human rights organizations is the further erosion of religious freedom in Pakistan.
“If Jesus Christ remains on the list of banned words, it will seriously limit the freedoms of Christians, and it will open a new chapter in the history of persecution of Christians in Pakistan,” Racho said.
However, a report in today’s Times of India says the Pakistani Telecommunications Commission may be reconsidering because of the criticism.
“The list was met with uproar, both at the attempt to censor messages and the inclusion of many seemingly innocuous terms, among them Jesus Christ, lotion, athlete’s foot, robber, idiot, four twenty and harder,” the Times of India report said.
Pakistan Telecommunications Authority spokesman Mohammad Younis Khan told Agence France-Presse the agency would consider making the list much shorter after consultation with civil society representatives and mobile phone operators.
“At the moment we are not blocking or filtering any word. No final decision has been taken in this regard,” Khan said, according to the report.
There is no word coming from Pakistan on whether the name of Jesus is still on the shorter list of words that will still be banned.
The central secretariat of the Pakistan Christian Congress said there are more than a million Christians who are mobile phone customers in Pakistan, and they often wish blessings on each other in Jesus name.
Nazir Bhatti said that such censorship denies basic human rights.