IN THE wake of a bloody pre-election period in which more than 200 people have been killed, Pakistani Bishops have spoken of their hopes that the next government will protect the rights of minorities.
On Wednesday, the Bishop of Raiwind, the Rt Revd Azad Marshall, was filmed outside a polling station, his thumb stained with ink, saying that he had voted “for justice. I voted for a peaceful Pakistan. I voted for Asia Bibi and all those who are in prison for the crimes they have not committed.”
Mrs Bibi remains in prison after being sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (News, 21 October, 2016).
Speaking on the eve of the election, the Bishop of Lahore, the Rt Revd Irfan Jamil, expressed his hope for a government that will take “stiff action” against inciters of hatred and mob violence.
On the morning of the election on Wednesday, a bomb-attack killed at least 31 people on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan province, where 149 people were killed in an attack on a political rally last week. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for both attacks.
“We are hoping that tolerance is promoted and the rights of minorities, particularly Christians . . . and stiff action is taken against those who promote intolerance through hate speeches and incite mobs to react,” Bishop Jamil said.
Churches in Lahore have been targeted by suicide bombers in recent years. In 2015, 14 people were killed outside churches (News, 13 March 2015); and the following year more than 70 were killed in a park, on Easter Day (News, 1 April 2016).
Guarded by more than 370,000 troops, 106 million voters were eligible to vote this week, electing members of both National and Provincial Assemblies. Bishop Jamil spoke of a desire for “good and honest people to be elected, who think out of the box and process a view which covers all communities”.
He feared further violence, he said, drawing attention to Article 295C, the blasphemy law.
“This might not be repealed, but I hope the new government monitors it, and those pursuing false cases are punished,” he said. “Furthermore [that] tolerance is promoted and the root causes are addressed and dealt with.”
Earlier this month, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, the former cricketer Imran Khan, confirmed: “We are standing with article 295c and will defend it.”
Shahbaz Taseer, the son of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab assassinated in 2011 after criticising the blasphemy laws and defending Mrs Bibi (News, 7 January 2011) , told the Guardian that Mr Khan was “a coward; he is supporting murderers and mob violence. This law is persecuting people, it is not respecting our prophet.”
On Thursday, Bishop Marshall suggested that “violence and terrorism have, for a large part of society, become synonymous with heroism and a war which is in some part against Christian ideals.” He hoped for “better communication between people of various ethnicities, sects and creeds”.
With the vote still be counted, he spoke of his desire for a government “deeply committed to democracy, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other democratic nations and is accountable for the treatment of all, that says ‘no’ to terrorism and recognizes the Church as an integral part of the country’s identity and future, allowing her an even playing field, with an amendment to the Blapshemy Law.”
He continued: “We seek this democracy, knowing full well that our context is unique and democracy would not play out the same way for Pakistan as it does n the rest of the world. But the principals of human dignity and the right of the individual and the community and the nation to be heard fairly and openly, continues to be critical.”
Bishop Jamil said that his hopes were for a government of Pakistan that would “put it on the track of development, particularly economy, which will alleviate poverty”, and “good governance in which corrupt people are put to task.”
PASupporters of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition between religious-political parties, attend a campaign rally in Karachi
The PTI is challenging the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). A year ago, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was dismissed from office, convicted by an anti-corruption court, and jailed. His younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, hopes to be elected.
In the National Assembly, 272 seats are directly elected seats and 70 are reserved: 60 for women and ten for religious minorities. Each party nominates candidates for these seats. World Watch Monitor reports that few of those named are Christians, and projects that Hindus will hold six or seven of the ten, and Christians two.
Release International reports that in Lahore, home to almost 750,000 Christians, no Christian candidates are running. PTI has nominated one Christian woman: Shunila Ruth, the daughter of a Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, who has championed women’s rights and spoken out against the persecution of Christians (News, 27 June 2014, 8 April, 2016).
On Monday, Bishop Jamil expressed concern that minority candidates nominated by parties “speak up and are not pressurised by their respective party’s agenda”.
Bishop Marshall spoke of the need for “structural changes in the constitution, which will safeguard the rights and voice of minorities by giving them increased agency to speak and serve and act fully as Pakistanis and Christians.”
Among the many parties on the ballot are a number of Islamist parties. The leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Hafiz Saeed, who is recognised as an international terrorist by the UN Security Council, is supporting the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party, after his party, Milli Muslim League, was banned from running.
A new party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), has called for blasphemers to be put to death. In December, its leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, brought Islamabad to a standstill in December in protest against any change to the country’s blasphemy laws.
On Tuesday, Zoe Smith, head of advocacy at Open Doors, said that the election “marks a critical point for Pakistan – will the electorate turn towards or against extremism? Our prayer is the latter.”
Pakistan’s constitution requires the President and Prime minister to be Muslims. Minority religions make up just four per cent of Pakistan’s population and Christians, less than two per cent.
“We pray that every woman, man and child, image bearers of God, would have the right to be heard and for their choices to be known and understood so their needs, their heart cry, their dreams and their prayers will have a chance, rather than be silenced and neglected,” Bishop Marshall said.
He urged people to pray for Mrs Bibi.