“Pakistan is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian,"
lamented a senior Pakistani Church leader last year, recalling the cover of an edition of Newsweek magazine which once named Pakistan the most dangerous nation in the world.
Pakistan’s Christians are a suffering, vulnerable minority. They face violence at the hands of Islamist terrorists, discrimination in work and at school, and live with the ever-present threat of “blasphemy” allegations, which have led to Christian communities being ransacked by Muslim mobs. Authorities often turn a blind eye and are sometimes even complicit in crimes against Christians, including the abduction and forced marriage of women and girls.
Targets of terror
On Sunday 17 December 2017, two Islamist terrorists attacked the morning service at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, killing nine Christians and injuring more than 50. Among those affected were some of the poor and needy families who receive monthly food parcels from Barnabas Fund. Many more of the congregation might have died had it not been for the courageous efforts of two men who managed to lock the church gates and delay the attackers; grandfather George Masih (63) and 36-year-old father of five Sultan Masih (not related) were both killed.
According to tradition, Christianity reached the Indian sub-continent in the first century, and there is evidence for a Christian presence dating back to the third century in early Christian texts. But the early Christian presence in what is now Pakistan was obliterated following the invasion of Islam in the 11th century. Western missionaries brought Christianity back to the region and the first mass conversions, in the 1870s, were among the most despised members of Punjab society, the “untouchable” people who formed the lowest level of the caste system. The Chuhras were viewed not only as inferior but also as unclean. They carried out dirty and menial jobs such as sweeping and observed a religion that was a kind of Islamised Hinduism. By 1911, there were nearly 164,000 believers in the Punjab region, which today straddles north-west India and north-east Pakistan; by 1935, almost all the Chuhras were Christians and even today, most Pakistani Christians are of Punjabi origin. The term “Chuhra” – which is commonly taken to mean a latrine cleaner – is viewed as intrinsically insulting by many Pakistanis.
In 1947, British India was partitioned into separate Hindu and Muslim states (India and Pakistan). Partition triggered violence and the mass movement of 14.5 million people, as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs relocated. When large numbers of Muslims arrived in Pakistan, many Christians working in agriculture lost their jobs to the new arrivals. Forced into towns to seek work, typically in low status jobs, many became impoverished.
The new state of Pakistan, which included what is now Bangladesh, was home to more than half a million Christians. The flag of the new country carried the traditional Islamic symbol of the crescent and star on a green background (representing the Muslim majority), with a vertical white stripe symbolising non-Muslim minorities. Pakistan was founded on ideals of equality between Muslims and non- Muslims, but the country’s constitution and laws have been gradually Islamised, eroding the position of religious minorities. Today, Christians in Pakistan account for around 3% of the population (as many as 3.5 million people ).
Other terror attacks have caused significantly more casualties: the clock in All Saints Church, Peshawar, remains stopped at the time of the bomb blast which claimed the lives of 127 Christians and injured and maimed many more in September 2013.
Pakistani Christians have endured years of violence from jihadists, but despite this they remain firm in the faith and courageously meet together Sunday after Sunday, knowing they might be targeted and killed.
Christians are also the victims of day-today violence. Stella was the only Christian member of staff at the medical clinic where she worked in Lahore. One Muslim colleague falsely accused and repeatedly insulted her, but the management at the clinic held Stella in high regard and supported her. On 25 April 2017, Stella’s Muslim colleague attacked her with acid. Stella lost consciousness and required medical treatment. When her family reported the attack to police, the attacker’s relatives threatened them to try and make them drop their case.
Seventeen-year-old Sharoon was beaten to death outside the school office after getting into an argument with a Muslim classmate on 30 August 2017. Students and teachers stood and watched while one boy continued to hit Sharoon as he lay unconscious on the ground. Sharoon was the only Christian in his year group at the government high school in Punjab. Christian students in government schools face possible violence and daily discrimination: one examiner assessing a home economics class with Muslim and Christian students refused to touch what the Christian girls in the class had cooked and tipped it into the bin, saying it would make her unclean. The Christian girls failed the exam.
In December 2017, a six-year-old Christian girl was shot and killed when a Muslim moneylender, accompanied by a mob, attacked the home of a Christian family. The family had taken out a loan of 40,000 Rupees (£273) and were struggling to meet the lender’s repayment charges. Police registered a case against the moneylender, but did not arrest him.
The threat of “blasphemy”
Because of the “blasphemy” laws, Pakistani Christians are only one false accusation away from imprisonment, potentially being forced to flee their homes, or even mob lynching.
In November 2017, five Christian families were forced to flee their village and go into hiding after a Christian teenager was accused of “blasphemy” on a Facebook page designed to mimic a news outlet. The post called for local Muslims to “burn his church and give him the death penalty.” Shortly afterwards a Muslim mob gathered in the village after Friday prayers and the families fled, fearing for their lives.
In 2013, hundreds of Christians in Joseph Colony, Lahore, were left homeless after a mob ransacked the community, torching 178 homes, as well as Christian-owned shops. Local Muslims were incited to attack the Christian community after a 65-year-old man was accused of insulting Muhammad; mosque loudspeakers broadcast calls to “kill the blasphemers.”
Under Pakistani law, there are several criminal offences of “blasphemy.” The two most serious are “desecrating the Quran,” which carries a mandatory life sentence, and “defiling the name of Muhammad,” which is officially a capital offence. No executions have yet been carried out, but a number of Christians and others are on death row. There is no penalty for false accusations and the laws have become a vehicle used to settle personal scores. Non-Muslims are particularly vulnerable to false accusation by Muslims. Proposals to amend the laws have been met with violent street demonstrations.
Among those on death row for “blasphemy” is Aasia Bibi. Sentenced to death in 2010, she has spent nearly nine years in prison. The most recent attempt to appeal her conviction collapsed when one of the three judges recused himself. Barnabas Fund are supporting Aasia’s family with a monthly food parcel and have helped to purchase a house and fund the installation of a gas supply to the family’s new home; Aasia’s husband and children had to go into hiding after she was accused.
Aasia was the first woman to be convicted under the “blasphemy” laws, after she was accused of insulting Muhammad during an argument with fellow women field-labourers, which started when they refused to drink water that she had fetched because she was a Christian. She is being kept in solitary confinement because of fears for her safety.
Worse than second class citizens
Irfan Masih used to clean sewers in Lahore. When he collapsed at work on 1 June 2017, his colleagues rushed him to hospital, but the first Muslim doctor who saw him refused to treat him until his sewage-covered body had been cleaned. The doctor claimed touching Irfan would have made him “unclean” during Ramadan. Irfan died on the hospital floor, as his family desperately tried to wash him and give him oxygen.
In classical Islam, Christians and Jews – “People of the Book” – living in a Muslim-majority state are dhimmis. While pagans face execution, dhimmis are spared, but become worse than second-class citizens. Dhimmis are required to pay a humiliating poll tax (called jizya) as a sign of subjugation, have reduced legal rights, and under some Muslim rulers were historically forced to wear distinctive clothing.
Christians in Pakistan have never officially been given dhimmi status, but the gradual Islamisation of Pakistan’s laws and constitution has eroded their originally equal status. In lower courts, there is a tendency for the judiciary to believe the word of a Muslim over a non-Muslim, in line with sharia laws which rule that the testimony of a dhimmi is of lesser value.
A tiny number of Christians have held positions of high office in Pakistan, but many more have found it impossible to advance beyond a certain level in the civil service, armed forces, judiciary, or medical profession. One Christian who was appointed head teacher of a school in Punjab was beaten up by Muslim teachers in October 2015, who told him “You are a Christian and a Chuhra, so how can you be headmaster and our senior?”
The majority of Pakistani Christians live in poverty, confined to menial jobs with few prospects. Much of the Muslim majority regard them as second-class citizens. Christians’ status as dhimmis is used as a religious pretext to justify discrimination. This negative view of Christians, stemming from Islamic doctrine, reinforces the discrimination of the ancient caste system, which saw the first Chuhra Christians relegated within society.
The threat to women
Pakistani Christian women and girls are especially vulnerable to kidnap and sexual violence. Twelve-year-old Monica was kidnapped in August 2016. Four days after she disappeared, local police in Lahore informed her father she had converted and married a Muslim. They produced a marriage certificate, which stated her age as 18.
Refusing to be cowed by threats, her father pursued the case and secured a court hearing (a rarity), where the judge demanded a second hearing be held with Monica present. At the time of writing there has be no second hearing, Monica remains “married” to her kidnapper and her father has died of stress. An estimated 700 Christian women and girls are kidnapped and forced into Muslim marriages each year. Hindu women and girls are also targeted. Attempts to enshrine protections in law against forced conversions, specifically intended to safeguard Christian and Hindu girls, have been blocked by Islamists.
A recent survey of ten brick-kilns in Punjab found that more than 60% of the workers were Christians. Many Christians toil in brick-kilns across Pakistan, working out in the open in nearly all weathers, making bricks by hand. Frequently the debts hang over families for generations, meaning they lose a cut of their meagre pay. While the debt remains, they cannot leave their jobs. Effectively trapped, they are extremely vulnerable to discrimination from their employers – some brick-kiln workers have even been sold like slaves from one owner to another.
Through a Barnabas Fund project, a total of 120 brick-kiln families have been freed from their debt in the last six months (see Barnabas Aid Jan/Feb 2018 magazine, p.16-17)
A people betrayed
Pakistani believers are a persecuted, vulnerable minority. Although they have a place on the nation’s flag, they are denied equal status in society and face daily discrimination, seemingly unrelenting violence, as well as the threat of false accusation. Pakistan’s Christians are a people betrayed: by successive governments increasingly in thrall to Islamists and by many in the international community – including in historically Christian countries – who ignore their plight.
When Pakistan was created in 1947 there were high hopes for this new nation. But a state formed with the intention of protecting religious minorities from persecution has seen the persecution of its own minorities gradually increase, to the point where the Christian community is under great pressure.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo’s 454-page book A People Betrayed vividly tells the story of the impact of Islamisation on the Christian community in Pakistan.
For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.barnabasfund.org/en/shop/books