Recently, on August 11, Pakistan observed the National Minority Day. Ironically what should have been the occasion to mark the contribution of religious minorities to Pakistan, persecuted Christians appealed to the Pakistani authorities to not to be defined as a minority. Their contention: being labeled as a minority has placed their community at a disadvantage as well as being viewed with suspicion as a foreign entity by the majority Muslim population.
In an interview, Pakistan’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Sebastian Francis Shaw listing out the discriminatory treatment meted out to Christians said that even through the Christians have made an equally important contribution for the defence and welfare of Pakistan, it is not recognised. It is not even part of the history.
Comprising 1.6% of the country’s population, Pakistani Christian community is mostly concentrated around the cities of Lahore, Faisalabad and Karachi. Some estimates also suggest pockets of Christian community in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The community remains one of the poorest in Pakistan, with many doing menial jobs such as labourers. Their low socio-economic status has translated into them becoming the targets of the religious extremists.
The community’s sense of vulnerability is often manifested in the way in which it has to weather the false accusations of blasphemy and instances of mob violence. The most notorious example of this has been the that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from a Punjab village who in 2010 got into an altercation with some Muslim women and was later accused by them of having blasphemed. It was only last year that the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a landmark decision, set aside her conviction after finding inconsistencies and contradictions in her conviction. The decade long case had turned attention to the misuse of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws to settle personal vendettas and had claimed lives of two important officials – then Punjab governor Salman Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti – for defending Aasia Bibi. It also rightly renewed the debate on the state of religious minorities in Pakistan.
False blasphemy cases aside, the Christian community in Pakistan also finds it at the receiving end of forced conversions, where girls from the community are often abducted and forced to marry. A high profile investigation by the BBC a few months ago, showed that a trafficking network existed in which poor Christian girls were being married off to the wealthy Chinese grooms. Some of the married off girls had been subjected to torture and domestic abuse.
However, an even more worrying concern for the community has been the frequent targeting by the sectarian religious groups in Pakistan. Scores of churches have been targeted by the militant groups while in some localities they have been victims of mob violence. In one the most prominent attacks, three years ago, a suicide bomber targeted the worshippers in Lahore celebrating Easter, killing more than 70.
The plight of the Christian community also reflects similar conditions of other minority groups in Pakistan – such as the Shias and Ahmadis, who too have faced similar attacks from the militant and the sectarian groups. This has been the result of the unmistakable stranglehold of the religious extremists on Pakistan’s socio-political life. Guided by the fantasies of creating a land ruled by puritanical version of Islam, these elements have consistently sought to make life difficult for the religious minorities and different sects within Islam which are not in conformity with the Sunni sect. In fact, the use of religion and exploitation of religious sentiments mastered skillfully by the Pakistan’s rulers, particularly by the General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, ostensibly for nation-building has brought Pakistan at this stage.
Pakistan has generally played down such reports of violence against its religious minorities. However, now as the international gaze turns towards Pakistan’s duplicitous ways, hopefully the situation will change.
The persecuted minority groups meanwhile have made a common cause. On August 21, a group of religious minorities submitted a 10-point memorandum to the Pakistani government demanding recognition of their human rights. The memorandum among other things demands the minimum marriage age to be raised from 16 to 18, the creation of a federal ministry for religious minorities; a 5% quota for scholarships; protection for houses of worship; legislation to prevent discrimination in employment, education and society; designated prayer locations in public places; removal of books promoting hate against religious minorities; and criminal justice reforms to protect women from the daily violence they face, including abductions, sexual violence and forced conversions.