Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

RIGHTS: Pakistani Christians Under Increasing Threat

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jan 21 2011 (IPS) - Forty-seven-year-old Gulsher Masih has been living in constant fear since fleeing his native village of Chuk Jhumra, near Faisalabad, a year ago.

Pakistani Christians go to Church in difficult times. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi

Pakistani Christians go to Church in difficult times. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi

He and his 22-year-old unmarried daughter, Saandal Bibi, had then just been acquitted and released from prison, where they served 13 months on charges of blasphemy for desecrating the Koran. But they had to leave familiar surroundings and steady work to hide in the concrete jungle of Punjab.

“In or out of prison, once accused, the looming shadow of death follows you everywhere,” says Masih, an experienced mason who is now out of work and is supported by the local church. As a Christian, he is among a shrinking minority in this predominantly Muslim nation.

Masih and his daughter are lucky to have been pardoned and allowed to escape their village alive. Such an offence would have been meted harsher punishment elsewhere in the country where, Christians say, religious intolerance is slowly becoming the norm.

In another Punjabi village, Itanwali, some 30 miles from the eastern city of Lahore, villagers are baying for the blood of Asia Bibi, a Christian who has also been accused of blasphemy. Villagers have been asking why she is still alive.

The root of the problem seems to be the unchecked growth of religious extremism in Pakistan.

Of the 1,060 people charged under blasphemy laws from 1986 to 2011, 46 have been killed either by angry mobs or by individuals. The Christian community has been attacked by rabid extremists, their churches and homes attacked in recent years.

Some Christians link these extremist reprisals to the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S, after which U.S. forces led a war against neighbouring Afghanistan. In October that year, Islamic militants killed 15 Christians in a church.

In 2005, 3,000 militants staged a similar attack, destroying churches in Sangla Hill as reprisal for the blasphemy allegedly committed by a Pakistan Christian. Then in 2006, militants targeted churches and Christian-run schools in protest over the publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

Similar incidents continued until 2009, in Gojra in Punjab, when eight Christians were burnt alive after a frenzied Muslim mob set ablaze 40 homes and a church while the police stood aside. After the incident, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hinted that his government would review the blasphemy laws.

In Faisalabad, Christian rights activist Atif Paggan says there has been a shrinking of the Christian minority in the last 15 years or so. “There is a growing restlessness among the Christians and many have left the country and feel discriminated against,” he says.

According to Peter Jacob, head of the National Commission for Peace and Justice (NCPJ) formed by the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, one-third of Pakistan’s population was composed of religious minorities at the time of its independence in 1947. Jacob said, the white in the national flag represented that 30 percent which included Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians.

But that minority has shrunk and now constitutes only 3.5 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million people. Christians comprise about 1.6 percent, with the largest concentration across Punjab province.

“The country lost its religious diversity,” Jacob says.

In the early 70s, the Pakistan People’s Party’s first government headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalised schools and colleges, and imposed Muslim beliefs and practices.

“It was during this time that Friday became the weekly holiday, Islamic studies were introduced in schools and liquor was banned. Laws and policies encouraged discrimination,” Jacob recalls.

But what triggered violence were sections 295 B and C which former president General Ziaul Haq added to the blasphemy laws in 1986.

Human rights activists say the law now protects no other religion but Islam, and has often been used as a weapon against adversaries or to force families off their land.

Jacob says Pakistan’s vibrant middle class began to dwindle the 1970s. “It wasn’t so much their migration abroad, as them finding fewer and fewer job opportunities,” says Jacob.

At one time, well-to-do educated Christians could be found in the judiciary and the bureaucracy as civil servants, doctors and teachers, while a majority of the less educated took up jobs as nurses. But this is no longer the case.

“In almost all the jobs available, the priority is given to Muslims and this is being done rather covertly,” says Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan.

In Punjab, a large number of Christians are employed in the brick kiln industry. “This year most of these workers were not paid their salaries before Christmas and could not celebrate Christmas,” Tariq says.

Punjab, with its large number of Christians, has also spawned the strongest sentiments against non-Muslims compared to the other three provinces.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst says it could be because of the increased religious orthodoxy during the past three decades.

“Punjab turned to the political far right and Islamic conservatism in the years of General Zia’s rule,” explains Rizvi. He adds that the religious political parties and militant and sectarian groups are also based in Punjab, where the military also exerts a strong influence. The most powerful political party in Punjab, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group), oscillates from centre-right to far right, overlapping with the politico-religious Jamaat-e-Islami on some political and security issues.

Not all Christians feel threatened or experience discrimination, however. There are many like Angie Marshal, a known name in the fashion world who runs a beauty salon.

“I’ve never felt less of a Pakistani being a Christian and never have I been discriminated against, either as a child or since I joined this profession. My husband is heading a foreign airline,” Marshal says.

And while she has had ample opportunity to emigrate, she smiles easily saying: “I really don’t see the reason to do so!”

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