The reason the Church in Pakistan is so vulnerable

by
12 August 2009

Recent attacks on Christians are part of a bigger picture of discrimination, says Peter Riddell

ATTACKS on Christian communities in Pakistan in recent weeks have been widely reported (News, 7 August). This has brought attention for a time to the plight of the three million Christians in Pakistan. But main­stream news reporting is a fickle business, and the long process of rebuilding and emotional recovery is likely to receive scant attention.

The details make stark reading: 117 Christian families were attacked in the village of Bahmaniwala on 5 July; about 50 more homes looted and burned in the village of Korian on 31 July; another 100 homes looted and 50 destroyed by fire in the nearby village of Gorja on 1 August. A num­ber of people were killed in their homes, as the mob deliberately pre­vented fire services from reaching the affected areas.

Such statistics do not capture the extent of human suffering. The Revd Maqsood Kamil, executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, visited Korian the day after the attacks. “We stood on the ashes of their burnt village. We found three very old Christians. A couple in their house were spared their lives as they beseeched the attackers.

“Their house was badly damaged. The mob even destroyed their earthen pitchers containing drinking water. For the last 16 hours, the older couple did not have a cup of water to drink. The other very old woman left behind is deaf. Her family ran away. Her house was like a smouldering inferno.”

Such attacks on Christians in Pakistan by elements in the majority Muslim population have very deep roots. The nation was created in 1947 as a home for Muslims from India, and 97 per cent of the population has remained Muslim since that time. Independence triggered a great struggle between different Muslim groups to define the identity of the new nation.

On one side were modernising leaders, initially led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who wished to create a parliamentary-based liberal demo­cracy with free and fair elections and universal suffrage. Arrayed against them were Islamist disciples of Abul A’la Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who longed for a sharia-based Islamic state that privileged the Muslim majority.

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For its first two decades, Pakistan was dominated by the modernisers, aided by the military, who kept a watchful eye on the restive Islamist groups. But the war in Bangladesh of 1971, and the resulting break-up of Pakistan, caused national trauma and a search for new solutions.

The 1970s and ’80s saw the steady Islamisation of the political and legal systems, especially during the presidency of General Muham­mad Zia ul-Haq (1977-88). One of his most infamous measures, the effects of which are still being felt by religious minorities, was the streng­thening of blasphemy laws in 1986.

If the letter of the law on blas­phemy is followed in Pakistan, death sentences are certainly feasible, al­though none has been carried out so far. Nevertheless, abuses have become common.

Amnesty International reports that: “In a number of cases, personal grudges against Christian neighbours seem to have led people to settle their disputes by bringing blasphemy charges.” This is illustrated by the case of Tahir Iqbal, a convert from Islam to Christianity, who was ar­rested after the imam of a local mosque filed a complaint alleging that Mr Iqbal was an apostate, and had defiled a copy of the Qur’an. Mr Iqbal had difficulty finding a lawyer to represent him, and was found dead in his cell in mysterious cir­cumstances.

Those accused of blasphemy frequently find that the legal system is stacked against them, either through questionable courtroom practices or intimidation of judges by Muslim activists. A human-rights report from the US Department of State records that “when such reli­gious cases are brought to court, extremists often pack the courtroom and make public threats against an acquittal. As a result, judges and magistrates often continue trials in­definitely, and the accused is burdened with further legal costs and repeated court appearances.”

The most recent attacks appear to involve more trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Dr Kamil reports that “the issue started with a Christian wedding. In Pakistan, wedding music is played and young people dance. Sometimes, people throw paper cur­rency on the dancing party. Muslims have said that the Christians, instead of using real currency, had made fake paper currency from the pages of the holy Qur’an and thrown them over the dancing party. So they desecrated the holy Qur’an.”

This enraged Muslims, and an­nouncements were made from the mosques through public address systems: “It suggests a big conspiracy. No Christian can ever dare to desecrate the Qur’an and invite death and destruction from the extremely intolerant Muslim masses.”

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In 1998, the RC Bishop of Fais­alabad, the Rt Revd John Joseph, committed suicide in public as a protest against the death sentence pro­nounced on several Christians (but not carried out) under blas­phemy laws. This act of despair is illustrative of the pressure Pakistani Christians faced then, and still face 11 years later.

Gone are the days when West­erners automatically identified with distant Christians as their brothers in faith. Muslims around the world are brought up to consider their fellow believers in other countries as part of the primary community of identity, but for many secularised Westerners, Christian Pakistanis are an un­familiar “other” with whom they share no particular bond.

Partly for this reason, it is awkward for Western governments to acknow­ledge publicly that Christians are being persecuted by Muslims. Stories about Islamophobia (unreasoned hostility towards Muslims) are far more comfortable discussion points than Westophobia (un­reasoned hos­til­ity towards the West), or Chris­tophobia (un­reasoned hostility towards Christians, especially by some Muslim groups).

    So it is likely that the status quo for Christians in Pakistan will continue. “Unfortunately we are absolutely vulnerable, and not prepared for any emergency,” Mr Kamil says. “We do not have funds for proper security, and we feel quite helpless.”

Professor Peter Riddell is Dean of the Bible College of Victoria Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths in Melbourne, Australia.

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