The deadliest incident faced by the persecuted church last Christmas wasn’t radical Islamists. It was alcohol.
Liquor mixed with aftershave killed about 50 people at Christmas parties in a Pakistani village, and sickened about 100 more.
In Pakistan, as in many Muslim-majority nations where Shari‘ah law forbids drinking, alcohol is closely identified with Christianity. The nation’s primary alcohol producer, for example, riffs on the Bible in advertisements. Founded in 1860 by the British, Murree Brewery’s slogan, “Eat, drink, and be Murree,” echoes the repeated biblical idiom for short-term pleasures.
Perhaps as surprising as the existence of a Pakistani brewery is the fact that 12 Muslims were among the victims of the fatal Christmas parties. But in 2007, then–Murree CEO Minnoo Bhandara told The Telegraph that 99 percent of his customers are Muslims. And in the Middle East, alcohol sales increased 72 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to market research.
Still, in most Muslim countries only Christians may buy or consume alcohol. But not all do. Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, estimates that about half of Pakistani Christian men drink. Roman Catholics are slightly more inclined; Protestants less so. But the women of both branches of Christianity, he says, are fully opposed.
Chowdhry, an evangelical, believes alcohol is licit for the Christian; but in deference to his wife, he does not drink. Common arguments in Pakistan will feel familiar to Americans: Alcohol will lead you to sin; it alters your consciousness before God; and the wine of the Bible was weaker than today’s.
But the main issue for Chowdhry is poverty. Prohibition is coupled with exorbitant taxes, making the least expensive Murree beer cost more than a day’s wage for the brick kiln workers—whom Chowdhry describes as modern-day slaves—found in many of Pakistan’s villages.
In its place is local moonshine, which can be dangerous, as the Christmas deaths attest.
“The ban is in place to stop Muslims from drinking, but all it does is allow criminal gangs to proliferate,” said Chowdhry. “Let people have freedom of choice, stop the bootlegging, and lower the taxes.”
But only two weeks after the Christmas tragedy, Christians in Peshawar demonstrated for a complete ban of alcohol, echoing an October high court decision to shut down alcohol sales in the financial capital, Karachi.
The dry divide
As in the rest of the world, Christian attitudes toward alcohol vary. The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 2,000 leaders at the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town 2010 conference, the world’s most diverse evangelical gathering ever. There was great unanimity on what it means to be an evangelical—except on alcohol.
Of the gathered leaders, 52 percent said drinking is not compatible with “being a good evangelical,” while 42 percent said it was. In the global North, only 23 percent of leaders opposed alcohol; in the global South, 75 percent did so; and in Muslim-majority nations, 78 percent did so.
Their rejection mirrors the culture that surrounds them. A 2013 Pew survey found that overwhelming majorities in a dozen Muslim-majority nations consider alcohol to be “morally wrong.”
In October, Iraq outdid Pakistan and passed a complete ban on its sale. Not content, extremists took the matter into their own hands. One week later, a Christian alcohol merchant was killed in Basra. In December, gunmen in Baghdad killed at least three more people in Christian-run shops that sold alcohol.