VULNERABLE Christians in Pakistan need the support of the international community in a country where they are “constantly under threat”, and the government is content to see them remain downtrodden.
This was the message of Shunila Ruth, a Christian politician in the provincial assembly of Punjab, the province where more than 70 people were killed in a terrorist attack on an amusement park on Easter Day (News, 1 April).
“We need the international support and help to stand with us on these issues because, as a Christian community alone, it will not be possible to overcome this,” she said last week. “Internally, they do not listen to us. The government does not care. Its policy is to keep them divided, not giving them education of opportunities; so they are a suppressed community, and cannot rise above resolving their issues of bread and butter.”
In the wake of the suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal amusement park, Mrs Ruth received the chairman of her party, Imran Khan, of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), at Jinnah hospital, where victims were being treated. She estimates that more than 35 Christians were killed, most of whom were children on the swings near the gates where the bomb was detonated.
Politicians, particularly Opposition leaders, had warned that the park was vulnerable, without police or security cameras, she says. The army knew that there were terrorists in the area, but the local government was “in denial”, insisting that there were no no-go areas in Lahore, and resisting the implementation of the National Action Plan to tackle terrorism. After the Easter bombing, hundreds of suspected militants were arrested, she says. “Had this operation been done earlier, these children, this attack on the park, could have been avoided.”
In the wake of the bombings, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, vowed not to allow terrorists to “raise their heads again”, claiming that this was “the resolve of the 200 million people of Pakistan”. Asked about solidarity in the country, Mrs Ruth points out that the constitution of Pakistan does not give Christians the freedom enjoyed by other communities. They are “constantly under threat” she says.
The Pakistani constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, requires that laws be consistent with Islam, and states that the President and Prime Minister must be Muslims. The Government does not give the same support to Christian and Muslims victims of terrorist attacks, she says. Last year’s attacks in Youhanabad are a “very clear example” of this (News, 13 March). Young people arrested during subsequent protests are still in prison, she reports.
She agrees that Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks, but asks: “Do they really mean it? I have seen Muslim clerics denouncing such incidents, condemning those incidents, but on the other hand making another statement . . .”
Just days after the Lahore attacks, the government pledged not to amend blasphemy laws, or show mercy to those convicted under them. It was part of the response to the demands of the thousands protesting against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the man convicted of executing Salmaan Taseer, a Punjab governor who spoke out against blasphemy laws (News, 7 January 2011).
Christians are not agitating for these laws to be abolished, Mrs Ruth stresses. “What we are saying is that this law . . . should take its course rather than people take it in their hands”. She also believes that those who make false accusations should be punished.
After the Easter Day attack, a spokesman for the Punjab government, Zaeem Qadri, said that the government had stepped up security at churches. Christians were “as safe as anyone else”, he told Reuters.
Mrs Ruth disputes claims that the government has improved security provisions for Christians. In some churches, there is one “very lethargic” police officer, and in others there are none, she says. With no security on gates, anyone can enter a church. Churches are also being asked to provide their own security personnel and cameras, she reports, with money they simply do not have.
In some countries, the Christian minority is both wealthy and well-educated. This is not the case in Pakistan where Mrs Ruth, the daughter of a former Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, is one of a “handful” of educated Christians. “The important thing is to educate people, give them political awareness, and skills and training so that they are on their own and economically strong,” she says. “Then they can fight their problems. Otherwise they will be crushed and thrown next to the wall and no one will listen to them. It’s a big challenge for churches in Pakistan, and I am sure that they are now putting their heads together to see how they can resolve these issues.”
Defeating the terrorist menace will take political will, she says. “If the Pakistani government is sincere, and if the people of Pakistan want it, I am sure that one day we will be a terrorist-free country. As far as the war on terror is concerned, as Christians we are with the government and the army and with Pakistan, because we are Pakistani. We have made this country, voted for this country, developed this country, and we are more patriotic than anyone else.”
She does not feel hopeful for Christians at the moment, she says. “But in Jesus Christ we do have a hope.” Christians in the country, although weak economically and politically, are “very faithful to their religion, and very strong, and they would not compromise their religion for anything”.
Politicians who have previously defended Christians have paid with their lives. When asked if she feels safe, she says: “I believe that I have been called for this work. It is not easy, it is difficult. . . But I trust in God, and as long as God wants to use me, I will be here.”