Under increased threat of persecution
Pakistani Christians are living under increased fear of persecution since this minority community came under scrutiny in the aftermath of two church bombings in the Lahore suburb of Youhanabad in mid March. The incident, which left 14 dead and over 80 wounded, sparked deadly riots when angry mobs turned their rage against two Muslim men suspected of being involved in the bombings. Crowds mercilessly burned the two suspects alive. This is the first incident where the Christian community has retaliated in Pakistan.
Last week, a Lahore Anti-Terrorism Court III Judge remanded 47 Christians in police custody. The Lahore police reportedly collected video footage of the incidents from the media to identify the culprits involved. Sources disclose that the police have arrested hundreds of Pakistani Christians to extract confessions and are victimising the minority under the guise of the on-going investigation.
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Association, told Qantara.de that over 300 Christians picked up by the police for the investigation remain missing. "Thirty boys were released without charges and have described severe police brutality including starvation." According to Chowdhry, people are leaving their homes in droves in Youhanabad because they are faced with two choices: to be falsely arrested or to cough up the Jizya tax, a tax applicable on non-Muslims, which they say the police are extorting from vulnerable Christians in exchange for giving them protection.
Marginalised for their faith
Targeted victimisation is not uncommon for the Christian community in Pakistan, which forms 1.6 per cent of the country's population.
Akhtar Baloch of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told Qantara.de that all minorities in Pakistan are in a vulnerable situation. "A large population of the Christian and Hindu minorities were forced to flee the country because of the deplorable conditions," says Baloch. He adds that the recent lynching of two Muslim men was bound to provoke further reactions in a Muslim majority country where Christians were already being discriminated against. "A lot of people filmed the lynching on their mobile phones and posted it on social media. This went around and, in an already polarised environment, it further deteriorated the situation."
Chowdhry believes that the Constitution of Pakistan undermines people of minority faith by labelling the country the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. "The laws are biased against Christians, and the anti-Christian wave has polarised society. There is an increasing hatred and intolerance towards the Christians in Pakistan, where conservatism and extremist Islam has taken over the country," he says.
Abida Fatima, a social worker for a renowned non-profit Christian association, is currently in Youhanabad investigating the plight of Christians in the Lahore suburb. She told Qantara.de that the injured worshippers from the church attacks failed to get proper medical care in government hospitals. Fatima added that a number of Christians have been made redundant by their Muslim employers.
Earning a decent living is not easy for Christians in Pakistan, many of whom work as labourers in Punjab and belong to one of the poorest sections of society. Chowdhry told Qantara.de that Christians in Pakistan experience discrimination when it comes to jobs and educational opportunities. "Eighty-six per cent of Christians are working as sewage cleaners, domestic servants or are in bonded labour. Generations of families are caught up in a cycle of debt."
The country's blasphemy laws add to the woes of Christians living in Pakistan. Studies by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) show that Pakistan has an alarmingly high number of casualties related to religious violence.
Vigilante attacks based on accusations of blasphemy are easily stoked by local clerics. In 2009, a mob of Muslims burned more than 70 Christian houses in the town of Gojra in the State of Punjab after hearing a rumour that a copy of the Koran had been desecrated. In September 2013, a violent attack on the worshippers of the All Saints Church in Peshawar left 82 dead and scores injured. In November 2014, a pregnant woman and her husband were burned alive for allegedly desecrating the Koran. In March of this year, a 15-year-old Pakistani boy was beaten up and set on fire by two Muslim men. His only "crime" was that he had truthfully admitted that he was a Christian.
The laws have attracted international attention because of the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian and mother of five whose death sentence for blasphemy was recently upheld. Fourteen people are currently on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan. Chowdhry told Qantara.de "So far, no Christian has been killed under the blasphemy laws, however those that are freed can be killed in extra-judicial killings."
"The blasphemy laws need to be repealed", Dr Katrina Lantos Swett of USCIRF told Qantara.de. However, she believes that it is not a realistic prospect in the current political climate. Dr Swett met with minority community leaders on her recent visit to the country and noted that there is great fear of the blasphemy laws within the minority communities in the country. At the moment, there is no specific penalty for people who misuse the law to settle personal scores.
The USCIRF officials urged the Pakistani government to reform the blasphemy laws. Dr Swett told Qantara.de, "They need to add a provision to the blasphemy code that makes it possible to prosecute those who file false accusations of blasphemy against others."
Changing the public discourse
Dr Swett and Chowdhry also believe that there is an urgent need to change the public discourse in the country.
Chowdhry insists that the Constitution of Pakistan needs to reflect the vision of the country's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. "Jinnah wanted a secular state, where he believed that people of all faiths could live in equality, so it is vital that the government take away Islam as the national faith to open the door for equality." He adds that the provision in the Constitution that bars non-Muslims from becoming prime minister should be done away with to show the minorities that they are accepted and have an equal status in society.
Dr Swett thinks that some changes can be made with the help of a public information campaign launched by the government of Pakistan on a national scale that highlights the historic role played by religious minorities in the country and recognises their contributions to building the country. "The nation's youth needs to be reminded that the green in the Pakistani flag represents Islam and the majority Muslims in Pakistan and the white stripe represents religious minorities and is a symbol of the country's commitment to equality," she says.
Roma Rajpal Weiss
© Qantara.de 2015