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Peers told of attacks and discrimination suffered by religious minorities in Pakistan

30 April 2024

UK must do more to eradicate ‘truly repugnant’ treatment of Christians, bishops say

Alamy

Drain-cleaning by Christian workers in Lahore, Pakistan

Drain-cleaning by Christian workers in Lahore, Pakistan

THE UK must do more to eradicate the systematic persecution and “truly repugnant” treatment of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, bishops have told the Lords.

The Bishops of Guildford and Leicester were contributing to a debate in the House of Lords on Thursday, initiated by Lord Alton, on how UK aid is being used to support minorities in Pakistan.

Introducing the topic, Lord Alton said that 3.72 per cent of the 230 million people in Pakistan were from religious-minority backgrounds. He referred to evidence, found by the APPG for Pakistani Minorities, of “discrimination and persecution against minorities, entrenched in school textbooks; stigmatisation in schools and colleges; and primitive and dismal conditions in the so-called colonies where Christians live, which are often devoid of running water, sanitation and electricity”.

Lord Alton also spoke of “violent attacks, including murder; and the denial of comparable voting rights with other citizens . . . the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, with forced conversions, rape, and coercive marriages — all issues that British aid could, and should do more to, address.” The Ahmadi community had also been targeted, he said.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, who is vice-chair of the Pakistani Minorities APPG, told peers: “I fully support the suggestion that religious minorities should be explicitly included in the list of marginalised communities when it comes to the provision of UK aid.”

His diocese, he said, had partnered the diocese of Sialkot in the Majha region of Punjab. “There is no question that discrimination exists on all levels against religious minorities in Pakistan.” This was due in part to extremism, blasphemy laws, poverty, and lack of education — and “the continuing legacy of the caste system, which frequently leaves Christians and Hindus at the bottom of the pile.”

Bishop Watson concluded: “UK aid should include religious minorities in the list of marginalised communities within Pakistan”, and “a percentage of the aid budget be set aside for minorities, using most of it on education and professional training projects”.

The urgency of the situation was echoed by Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford, who said: “Since 2006, the Pakistan parliament has provided about 6000 projects in a national poverty-reduction scheme. This progress is welcome, but none of these projects target issues specifically facing Dalits, who are floundering in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of land, which forces them into that poorly paid employment where they can be exploited. . . There is a high level of suicides among this community due to this distressing economic situation.”

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, spoke of two issues raised with him by members of the large Pakistani-heritage community in Leicester: “the plight of Christians forced to work as gutter cleaners with no personal protective equipment”, and “the need for a small, safe, and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK”.

Fewer than two per cent of the population of Pakistan were Christian, but Christians accounted for more than 80 per cent of the sewerage and street-cleaning workforce, he said, “where hazardous conditions and a lack of workplace health and safety regulations and protective equipment cause untold preventable accidents, illnesses, and deaths.

“The accounts of their working conditions are truly repugnant, made even more shocking by the fact that the government agencies advertise cleaning positions for Christians and other religious minorities only.”

On safe legal routes, he said: “I was approached by a bishop in Pakistan to ask if I might help secure asylum for one of his priests. The priest’s brother had been murdered and there was clear evidence to suggest that others in the family were at serious risk. But despite all my efforts, and indeed the intervention of . . . the Archbishop of Canterbury, we could not secure a visa for the priest and his family.”

He concluded: “I dare to suggest that we have a moral duty to offer such help.”

Responding to the debate, Lord Ahmad welcomed the raising of specific concerns, and said that the UK development budget for Pakistan had more than tripled this year. The Government, he said, was committed to eradicating all forms of modern slavery, and “condemn unequivocally the desecration of religious sites and graves and the violence against individuals, and we want perpetrators to be held accountable.”

On safe and legal routes, he said: “While the Government have a very robust policy on immigration, as we have seen in recent months, it is important to sustain, maintain, and strengthen those seeking asylum in the UK, particularly those who are persecuted simply because of their faith.

“Let us be frank: I have seen the benefit of those who have come to our country. When you look at a proper analysis, they make an incredible contribution to the progress of our country, and we are richer for it.”

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