Many Pakistanis celebrated the end of the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan, but others warn of increasing home-grown Islamist violence and extremism. An example is Father Mushtaq Anjum, the only Pakistani priest of the Order of St Camillus. After spending four years of formation and pastoral work in Indonesia, Father Anjum returned to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan earlier this year.
He has been concerned about the future of religious minorities in Pakistan, noting that several members of the Taliban’s new cabinet studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, an Islamic seminary in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in north-west Pakistan. It is among more than 22,000 madrassas in Pakistan, Islamic schools that fuel extremism. They offer to students from poor families free education, board and lodging. Father Anjum recently spoke about the subject with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need.
How has the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan affected Christians in Pakistan?
The threat against them has increased, since our government supports the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The ramifications are a common topic for discussion among priests these days. On 22nd September, we marked the eighth anniversary of the twin suicide bombing outside All Saints Church in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where at least 85 people were killed and more than 140 were wounded.
What concerns do you have for believers in the country?
We have always complained of mob rule and about the controversial blasphemy law which has been grossly abused, with many people making false accusations to settle personal scores, to obtain the victim’s property, or to attack the person’s faith. We have always demanded that the majority Muslims should respect and accept religious diversity in Pakistan.
Is the situation the same for other Muslim majority countries?
Pakistani Islam has always been different from that of other Muslim-majority countries. Indonesia, for example, also has a blasphemy law but maintains the overall rule of law. Sadly, Pakistan is an Islamic state where the law is enforced only on the poor.
How do you explain the hostility in Pakistan towards minority communities?
Such attacks on churches and minority communities illustrate that Pakistan has always been receptive to fundamentalism. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan consider the United States as an enemy. There is a deep-seated hatred of western countries where Christians compose a sizeable proportion of the population. The brotherhood of the two countries is based on Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:51 of the Quran, which warns believers against becoming allies of Jews and Christians. It is largely because of the Taliban that religious minorities in Pakistan and Afghanistan live a subdued life.
How can the international community best respond?
World leaders should be more vigilant about the lack of respect for human rights and religious freedom in both countries. We welcome the recent resolution of the European Parliament that calls upon Islamabad to allow freedom for religious minorities, asks the European Union to reconsider Pakistan’s preferential trade status, and urges authorities to repeal the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Looking towards the future, what might we expect for Afghanistan and Pakistan?
The Taliban government brings back fears of attacks, suppression, oppression and hatred. Civil war could break out in Afghanistan over the spoils of victory. I am afraid many Taliban will return to Pakistan and exploit Islamist extremism, pushing Pakistani terror groups to step up attacks. They thrive on violence. The government should ensure protection of churches and minority places of worship before their arrival.