When a suicide bomber struck in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park on Easter Sunday 2016, the world news headlines that followed highlighted the increasing threat to the country’s beleaguered Christian minority. The fact that as many as 24 (32 percent) of the dead were Christians was quickly recognised as disproportionately high in a country where they make up barely two percent of the total population. Such figures seemed to show that the terrorist group claiming responsibility for the attack had fulfilled their aim of targeting Christians. Taking place on the holiest day in the Christian calendar, the atrocity was a massive blow to Christians’ morale, especially given the strenuous efforts of Church leaders to step up security in their places of worship – largely paid for at the Christian community’s expense. The incident seemed to send a signal to Christians that attackers would seek them out wherever they could be found, not just in churches or Christian-majority communities so frequently targeted by extremists. The security improvements in churches included raised-up perimeter walls, complete with razor wire, surveillance cameras, bomb-proof gates, guards and patrols. For a community trying to put behind them a series of devastating bomb attacks on churches and other Christian-run institutes including schools, it seemed nowhere was safe anymore for the faithful. Here was a religious group – frequently labelled an unwanted hangover from colonialism and apparently sympathetic to a decadent and interfering West – at increasing risk from a growing social hostility fed by an Islamist militant fringe. And the accusation grew louder that such militants were emboldened by a government either powerless to confront them effectively or unwilling to do so. Dominican priest Father James Channan OP, head of Lahore’s Peace Centre and secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, said at the end of December 2015: “I would say that Christians are experiencing the worst time in their history in this country. Discrimination, suffering and oppression turn too often to outright persecution. We ask the government: Where is the justice? Where are the culprits of the many senseless episodes of violence committed against Christians?”
Such a deeply disturbing picture would have been hard to imagine when Pakistan came into existence in 1947 when its founder, Mohammad Ali-Jinnah, extolled the virtues of the new apparently secular country in which h “You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Pakistan’s overwhelming Muslim majority have increasingly imprinted their creed and customs on the country’s constitutional, legal and organisational structure, to the exclusion of other groups. As early as 1956, it was renamed the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the 1973 constitution makes clear that citizens’ rights concerning freedom of religion are constrained by an institutional framework which ensures that religious minorities are not the equals of their Muslim neighbours.
But it was the changes to the country’s g first introduced under the dictatorship of General Zia Ul-Huq (1977-88), which fundamentally undermined the rights of Christians and other minorities. Of particular concern are Sections 295 B and 295 C. Offences against the Qur’an receive a sentence of life imprisonment and insults against the Prophet Mohammed are punishable by death. The legislation would not necessarily be so problematic were it not for the apparent failure of the authorities to uphold the law, with the courts and security services frequently prevented from following due procedure as a result of mob action or other nefarious interventions. Potential amendments to the legislation are as distant a prospect as ever: especially given the public displays of support for Mumtaz Qadri. Sentenced to death for the January 2011 killing of Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer – apparently gunned down for his questioning of the blasphemy laws and his defence of Christian woman Asia Bibi found guilty of blasphemy – thousands of Qadri’s supporters gathered at his execution in Islamabad on 29th February 2016, calling him a “hero”. As for Asia Bibi, who had been placed on death row, a glimmer of hope came when Pakistan’s Supreme Court re-opened the case. But in October 2016, the court delayed the final hearing after a judge “recused” himself. At the time of writing, Asia Bibi remains imprisoned and the hearing has not yet been rescheduled. Evidence is mounting to show that even discussion of the blasphemy laws and their place in Pakistan’s legal system is off-limits, with growing pressure on the government to make the blasphemy laws more restrictive. The government has taken steps to tighten enforcement of the laws by cracking down on defamation on social media, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan threatening in May 2017 to block all sites found to have blasphemous content. On 12th June 2017, Shiite Muslim Tamoor Raza, 30, from Okara, in Punjab, was threatened for posting allegedly blasphemous content about Islam on Facebook.
Central to the drive to make the blasphemy laws tantamount to an article of faith is a gradual “Talibanisation of society”, with growing influence of hard-line Islamism. A confidential report from a human rights activists’ group sent to Aid to the Church in Need described how “Christians are living under a grave threat of extremism through waves of religious intolerance and violence.” It highlighted increasing trends towards forced conversion of Christian women – including rape of underage girls – who are compelled to marry Muslim men. Similarly, reports indicate the rise of discrimination in the workplace, where again pressure to convert is commonplace. With Christians expected only to do menial jobs such as cleaning and working in brick kilns and other factories, daily discrimination has been reported with Christians regularly called “Chuhra” – filthy creature. Much of this intolerance is inculcated at an early age. Dismissive attitudes to Christians are, reportedly, deeply entrenched in many of the Madrassas and other Islamic educational institutes whose numbers run into the tens of thousands if not more. Efforts to curb the influence of supposedly banned Pakistani Taliban and other groups are undermined by their evident pervasiveness. In state education too, the presence of religious intolerance is deeply felt, with reports indicating that school text books in Sindh, Punjab and elsewhere inculcate religious hatred towards Christians and other minorities. In such circumstances, massive changes in societal attitudes and government policy will be required before the situation for Christians improves.