PAKISTAN must rank with Nigeria and Sudan as one of the most
difficult countries in which to live as a Christian. Not only is
the community small - about 3.6 million Christians, out of a
population of 180 million - but it faces almost daily assault and
Fanaticism, mob violence, death threats, bombings, and
institutional discrimination are just some of the dangers.
Christians are often denied places in schools, are forced to accept
only menial jobs, and are viewed with contempt and hatred by
Last September, two suicide-bombers attacked a church in
Peshawar, killing and wounding more than 230 worshippers, at a time
when women and children were thronging the church grounds (News,
27 September). In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with
learning difficulties, was threatened with execution for blasphemy
when a Muslim cleric planted false evidence to incriminate her for
burning pages of the Qur'an (News, 24
The Archbishop of Canterbury was impressed, however, by what he
found on his two-day visit last week. Not only was the United
Church of Pakistan in good spirits and full voice, welcoming him at
a service in the Cathedral of the Resurrection, in Lahore, with
joyous celebrations; it was, he said, an inspiration to the wider
Here was a beleaguered community that refused to be deflected
from what it saw as its moral and civic duties to the wider Muslim
society. Here was a Church that continued to strive for better
interfaith relations in a state set up explicitly to favour the
Here, the faithful were prepared to keep going, whatever the
setbacks. "It is about just sticking it out," Archbishop Welby
said. And that, he believed, was a lesson that all Churches needed
to learn, in-cluding those where divisions, public indifference,
and falling attendance were taking their toll.
The problems in Pakistan were illustrated on the first day of
the Archbishop's visit. As he was listening to the pleas to be
allowed to worship in freedom and safety by the Bishops of the
eight dioceses, a few streets away, a pregnant young Muslim woman
lay dying, her face and head smashed by bricks wielded by her
family, as a punishment for defying her father's wishes.
There could be no more ghastly example of the fanaticism and
misguided sense of honour which now have such a powerful grip on
much of Pakistani society. "The case has utterly horrified me, and
has horrified every Pakistani to whom I've spoken," the Archbishop
said on learning of the details the next day. "It was in no sense a
punishment, but a revolting lynching."
The stoning received only cursory mention on the front pages of
the newspapers in Pakistan; it was not an uncommon incident. Almost
900 women were the victims of "honour" killings by their families
last year, the country's human-rights groups say.
But the coincidence of the Archbishop's visit and the widespread
coverage given to the case abroad prompted swift official reaction:
the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, ordered an inquiry. The police
have been forced to account for their inaction. And there were
promises that more would be done to protect women who are routinely
exploited by their families, or subject to appalling violence.
So far, however, there has been little official action to
correct another abuse that is taking a disproportionate toll on
Christians in Pakistan: the misuse of the notorious blasphemy
These laws, passed in the 1970s when a deliberate attempt to
Islamise Pakistani society for political ends fuelled the growth of
Islamist militancy, are increasingly used not to protect the honour
of Islam, but for crude material gain. No further evidence beyond a
verbal accusation needs to be produced in court to support charges
that a person has insulted the Prophet Muhammad, or denigrated
Islam. The penalty can be a death sentence, or a long term in
Muslims are just as much victims of the greedy and unscrupulous,
who make accusations of blasphemy to incite a mob, get revenge on
business rivals, or force people from their land and property.
Yet any attempt at change runs up against the opposition of
Islamists. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister in the
federal government, was assassinated after calling for a change in
the law (
News, 4 March 2011).
The Archbishop heard of the dangers at first-hand. At a meeting
with Muslim leaders, and those from the small Sikh and Hindu
communities, he heard from Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, who chairs
the Pakistan Ulema Council. Mr Ashrafi had given evidence to a
court that the evidence against Rimsha Masih was planted on her. He
was promptly sent death threats. But he insisted that Muslims had a
duty to protect their Christian fellow citizens.
Archbishop Welby and the Bishop of Raiwind, the Rt Revd Samuel
Azariah, raised the issue during a courtesy call on Mohammad
Sarwar, the former MP for Glasgow Central, who recently returned to
Pakistan and was appointed Governor of Punjab, its richest and most
Mr Sarwar said that he would talk to the Prime Minister and to
the state's Chief Minister. But he was cautious about promising
change: the issue, he said, was so sensitive that extremists always
threatened violence if the laws were amended.
Bishop Azariah is the Moderator of the United Church of
Pakistan, which was formed from the small Churches whose roots in
the country lay in the evangelism of British missionaries during
In 1970, four Churches agreed to unite: the Anglicans,
Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Lutherans. It has been a
difficult union. Each element is still jealous of its traditions
and separate liturgies. Bishops have gone to court to sue each
other over claims to property and funding. There are still tensions
over church governance.
The Archbishop urged all the bishops, in private talks, to put
aside their differences and concentrate on "holiness" and internal
reconciliation. That was certainly on view during the high point of
his visit: a morning service in Lahore Cathedral, an imposing
neo-Gothic edifice built in 1887 during the height of British rule,
with stained-glass windows and plaques commemorating army officers
and servants of the Raj.
"Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven" rang out from the packed
congregation, as Archbishop Welby, in cope and mitre, was led in
procession to the altar. Garlanded with roses and jasmine - as were
Mrs Welby and the small group from London accompanying them - he
preached a sermon of hope and fortitude, saluting Christians in
Pakistan for their steadfastness and their work in opening up their
schools and rural health-clinics to the wider community.
The country's Christians are not wealthy. The Bishop of
Peshawar, the Rt Revd Humphrey Peters, is still trying to raise
money overseas to pay for operations abroad for the 25 worshippers
who were injured during the bombing of a church.
But the community has found money to run a small school for
children with disabilities and learning difficulties within the
church compound in Raiwind. It is open to anyone, whatever their
faith. And it is one of the few to cater for those with
This, Archbishop Welby said, was Christian faith in action. It
was, he said, an example of the reconciliation that he has made a
hallmark of his office. He said that he was uplifted by the
vibrancy of the small community.
He admitted to a personal link to Lahore. In 1910, his
great-grandfather had been the British Deputy Commissioner in the
city, once one of the jewels of the Raj. His grandmother was
brought up to speak fluent Urdu and Hindi.
As the Archbishop joined the congregation in the Urdu words to
hymns familiar around the Anglican Communion, he may have felt a
new connection to Christianity in the subcontinent, before
departing for Bangladesh, and then the Churches of North and of
South India. He has visited 17 of the Communion's 38 provinces.
Pakistan must have one of the most challenging - and most
Michael Binyon accompanied the Archbishop to Pakistan
for The Times.