Usman Ahmad: Is Pakistan safe for Christians?

By Usman Ahmad comment

Activists from a Pakistani NGO observe a silent protest to condemn a suicide bombing which targeted Christians at Easter in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo / AP
Activists from a Pakistani NGO observe a silent protest to condemn a suicide bombing which targeted Christians at Easter in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo / AP

Christianity in Pakistan has come under brutal attack, most recently with March's Easter Sunday bombing.

However, Pakistan's intensely restrictive religious environment is as much to blame as the recent terror attacks for Pakistani Christians' trepidation around practicing or identifying with their religion.

Retributive actions and military-driven anti-terror campaigns alone will not make Pakistan a better, safer place for Christians. Cultural and societal changes are the necessary first steps.

In March 2015, in the weeks leading up to Easter, suicide bombers launched an assault on two churches in the Youhanabad neighbourhood of Lahore, killing 19 people.

Then on Easter Sunday this year, Lahore was struck again when another suicide bomber blew himself up near a selection of children's rides at the city's Gulshan-e-Iqbal park. At least 74 people were killed and hundreds more injured by the explosion.

Among the slain were eight members of a single family.

According to a spokesperson of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the Pakistani Taliban splinter group responsible for the attack, the primary target was Christians celebrating the end of Easter.

These atrocities in Pakistan take place against a broader backdrop of increasing persecution of Christians throughout the world.

A 2015 report by Open Doors, a Christian advocacy watchdog group, claimed that the events of the past year represented "the most violent and sustained attack on the Christian faith in modern history".

The report also found that 7100 Christians were murdered because of their religion, while Pakistan ranked sixth on the list of countries in which Christians face the most severe persecution.

However, there is also a sense of hope - despite violent setbacks like the Gulshan-e-Iqbal tragedy in March - that conditions by which a decrease in the frequency of terror attacks in Pakistan can happen are improving.

This optimism stems from the seismic shifts in government and military policy that followed the December 2014 terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that left 150 people dead - mainly children.

Indeed, as a result of the 20-point National Action Plan to counter terrorism and an intensification of the Zarb-e-Azab military operation against the Pakistani Taliban in the wake of the massacre, 2015 saw a 56 per cent decline in terror-attack fatalities from the previous year.

Yet what this analysis fails to take into account - particularly in the Christian context - is that the maltreatment of Christians in Pakistan is enhanced by militancy rather than driven by it. At an everyday level, the root causes of the anxieties of the community owe more to the actions of ordinary Pakistanis rather than terrorist outfits.

Christian marginalisation in the mainstream is not just a purely religious matter. Even before a hardline version of Islam emerged as the fundamental cornerstone of the national identity, Christians were considered social outcasts on grounds of caste as many of them have historically been converts from low-caste Hindu tribes during the years of British rule.

"In the case of Christians, both religion and class impact how they are treated in Pakistan and discriminated against," says researcher and writer Rabia Mehmood.

"While religious intolerances are more widely highlighted there is also a deep-rooted, caste-based discrimination that has existed in South Asia for hundreds of years. For example the derogatory term "churha" (sweepers) is commonly used to describe Christians. Historically most Christians in Pakistan are converts from lowly Hindu castes and the stigma and exclusion resulting from this has not left them."

Pakistani Muslim students attend a religious madrassa in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / AP
Pakistani Muslim students attend a religious madrassa in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / AP

Hostility to Christians has been further aggravated by a growing animosity towards the United States and the West, particularly as a consequence of the 'war on terror' and continued drone strikes in Pakistani territory.

In 2012, 80 per cent of Pakistanis held unfavourable views of the United States. Though last year that came down to 59 per cent, it still represents a plurality of people.

Consequently, on account of their religious and cultural associations with countries like the United States where Christianity is the dominant religion, Christians have come to be seen as enemies of Pakistan.

The storming of a Christian boys school in Peshawar last year in protest at the controversial cartoon published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is one example of the reactionary treatment of Pakistani Christians and resentment of Western views of Islam.

Taken together, these negative perceptions have created a combustible situation for the peace and security of Pakistan's Christian community. A measure of both their distress and how they are viewed by the mainstream Muslim population can be gauged from the horrific conditions with which Christians must contend on a day-to-day basis. The worst of these is forced marriage and conversion to Islam.

According to the "Forced Marriages and Inheritance Deprivation" report published by the Islamabad-based Aurat Foundation, between 100-700 Christian girls are forced into marriage and conversion to Islam every year. Unfortunately, this is often preceded by some form of sexual assault, as Pakistan has historically been one of the most dangerous countries on earth for women.

In the majority of cases, complaints are ignored by the police. For the ones that do make it to court, girls and women are pressured into testifying that their marriage was voluntary, often under the threat of recrimination towards their families or possible accusations of apostasy if they deviate from the prescribed testimony.

Since victims often remain in their perpetrator's custody, their ability to bring evidence against the men who wronged them is extremely slim. There is a belief that because of these factors the extent of the problem is likely to be more conspicuous than the figures suggest, with many cases also going unreported.

The economic condition of Christians is another significant roadblock to justice. "A large number of Christians are some of the poorest citizens of Pakistan - with them being cleaning staffers, sweepers, brick kiln workers, landless farmworkers and domestic workers.

Job advertisements asking for Christians to apply for positions of sweepers in government offices is a historical norm," says Mehmood. "Their poverty definitely makes Christians more vulnerable to forced marriage and violence and hinders them from proper legal representation."

With no national or provincial laws preventing forced conversion, this trend shows little sign of abating. This year, cases of this nature include that of 15-year-old Saima Bibi who was kidnapped in January by a group of men and forced to marry one of her captors.

Heavily weighted against minorities, Pakistan's blasphemy laws are frequently used to harass communities like the Christians. The well-documented case of Asia Bibi is one such example. Even an accusation of blasphemy can have far-reaching consequences. 2013 saw an enraged mob set fire to over 150 houses in Joseph Colony, Lahore, after an argument between a Muslim and a Christian ended in allegations of blasphemy. In 2014, a young Christian couple was burned alive in the presence of onlookers under similar circumstances.

Their poverty definitely makes Christians more vulnerable to forced marriage and violence and hinders them from proper legal representation
Rabia Mehmood

And only last month a fatwa asking for the death of a Christian youth, Imran Masih, was issued in Punjab's Mandi Bahauddin after he was accused of watching so-called blasphemous videos on his phone. The Christian community belonging to the same village as the boy has been given an ultimatum that they must either convert to Islam or leave their homes for good. If they do not comply, they face the threat of having their houses torched.

There are many other non-violent forms of discrimination Christians endure, such as lack of employment opportunities, poor access to education, and barriers to social mobility that only add to Christian vulnerability. Views of Christians among some employers can be gauged by the fact that sanitation jobs, for example, are often advertised as open only to non-Muslims with Christians the primarily in mind.

The ill-treatment of minorities, especially Christians, is a black mark against the wider Pakistani society. While terrorists may be the most violent agitators, it is public attitudes that mark minorities as major targets for militants.

As Pakistan continues in the fight against extremism, it needs to understand that military solutions are not enough. Killing off the militants might make the country a safer place overall, but it will have no bearing on the daily plight of those whose lives are lived in the framework of dehumanising stereotypes. Until these core fundamental tensions are resolved, the country will continue to be a front-line player in Christian persecution.
- Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer based in Pakistan.

- Foreign Policy

- Washington Post

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