When Presbyterian missionaries began working in earnest in northwest India in the nineteenth century, they made the greatest headway among the poorest of the poor. As a result, most Christians in Pakistan, formed out of colonial India, are descendants of untouchables, families at the lowest level of the Hindu caste system. Very few Pakistani Muslims have ever converted to Christianity.
Most Pakistani Christians today still do the same work as their untouchable ancestors: sweeping the streets and doing other menial jobs deemed ritually or literally unclean by higher-caste Hindus.
DOUBLE DISCRIMINATION: In the serene capital city of Islamabad, Christians live in makeshift squatter settlements carefully hidden from public view, enjoying no property rights or legal access to electricity or drinking water, and under threat from a city relocation scheme. In February, a Christian community of 250 households in Islamabad received seven days' notice to clear out.
Over tea in the cramped sitting room of a low-ceilinged, makeshift home, Iqbal S. Bhindar, chair of Building the Future Together, a Christian organization established to find alternatives for squatters such as himself, says the land on which they live belongs to the city government.
"They can clear us out any time," Bhindar says. "They haven't moved us out yet, but they haven't given us any facilities, either."
Aslam Ghouri, the group's general secretary, adds, "They've been taking from us for years, and now they're trying to kick us out."
Pakistani Christians of all social classes endure an atmosphere of unending harassment and humiliation. "They call you names like sweeper," says a Christian human-rights worker in Lahore. "So Christians are twice discriminated against, both for their religion and for the work they do.
"My mother says that when she was young, there wasn't this Christian-Muslim problem. The majority of the Christians never migrated from India. This is our land. It is actually the Muslims who migrated." When Pakistan was formed by partition from India in 1947, the country, whose name may be interpreted to mean land of the religiously pure, was designed to be a homeland for Muslims.
DEATH FOR BLASPHEMY? Although intense discrimination has made daily life traumatic for Christians, the enforcement of Pakistan's blasphemy law has made being a Pakistani Christian potentially lethal.
Since October 1996, Ayub Masih, 35, has been jailed while appealing his conviction for blasphemy, which carries a mandatory death penalty.
In 1986, military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, as part of his Islamization campaign, amended the blasphemy code to allow the courts to issue a death sentence against anyone who dishonored the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Muslim extremists have aggressively used the tough code against Hindus, the Ahmadiyya (a heretical Muslim sect), and Christian untouchables, who make up a combined 3 percent of the country's 141 million people.
"With these laws, any Muslim can easily bring a legal case against you," Pakistani expert Cris Toffolo of the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said recently to Presbyterian News Service. Cases are difficult to dismiss, because judges are often threatened.
Muslim mobs sometimes do not wait for court rulings and have killed two Christians after they were accused of blasphemy. Also, one judge was murdered in 1997 after he acquitted two Christian defendants of blasphemy.
Although the government has not actually carried out any executions, three other Christians have been convicted of blasphemy during this decade.
The blasphemy cases often originate in village-level rivalries, typically escalating until a Christian defendant faces disgrace and death or, at best, exile or a life in hiding.
In February 1995, a Lahore court sentenced 14-year-old Salamat Masih to hang, making headlines worldwide. Following the rumored direct intervention of thenPrime Minister Benazir Bhutto, an appeals court overturned the verdict, and the teenager and his relative and codefendant, Rehmat Masih, were spirited away to exile in Germany.
Last year, on May 6, nine days after Ayub Masih's death sentence was handed down, the Roman Catholic bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan, arrived by car outside the Sahiwal District Court building, accompanied by his driver, Fr. Yaqoob Farooq.
Bishop John Joseph, 66, asked Farooq to show him the place where gunmen had reportedly fired at Ayub Masih the previous November as he entered the courthouse. The bishop then walked over to the spot, pulled out a pistol, and shot himself in the throat. By the time Farooq reached him, Joseph had died.
"In the bishop's mind, the time had come when this law needed the attention of the world at large and especially of Pakistanis," Joseph's friend Cecil Chaudhry told Christianity Today. "He always said, 'There will come a time when to get our rights in this country, we will have to start sacrificing lives. And I will be the first to sacrifice my life.' "
Looking back, Chaudhry says there were signs that the bishop planned to take his own life. "I know that for this full week or more he was fasting and praying," Chaudhry says.
CHRISTIAN PROTESTS: Joseph's death sparked an outpouring of grief and outrage among Pakistan's 1.9 million Christians (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 18). Tens of thousands demonstrated nationwide, carrying banners urging repeal of the blasphemy law and chanting slogans such as, "Bishop, your blood will bring a revolution!"
Muslim mobs responded in kind, attacking churches and Christian homes, leaving dozens of Christians injured and many more homeless. Though Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his condolences and urged Pakistanis to "show tolerance" for differing beliefs, his close political ally Ejaz ul-Haq told journalists: "Even if 100,000 Christians sacrifice their lives, the blasphemy law will not be repealed."
Chaudhry acknowledges that the bishop's tragic suicide did in fact galvanize Pakistan's usually timid Christians and their allies: "The minorities combined together," Chaudhry says. "The Hindus joined us, the Sikhs joined us, and soon after we had a joint minorities conference in Lahore. And it shook up the government for the first time, and they began talking in terms of looking into the blasphemy law." However, in a few days, as India and Pakistan executed tests of nuclear bombs, reaction to the bishop's death was overshadowed.
But regardless of how Pakistani Christians interpret the bishop's suicide, many agree that it triggered an unprecedented response from Christian leaders around the globe. Last May, the World Council of Churches called for repeal of the blasphemy law, saying "religious minorities [are] under a state of siege." Last August, Anglican bishops, meeting at the Lambeth conference, demanded that Pakistan release all prisoners "unjustly accused" of blasphemy. "The blasphemy law has paralyzed our community with fear," said Anglican Bishop Azad Marshall of the Diocese of the Arabian Gulf in Pakistan.
RELIGIOUS APARTHEID: Despite the international protests, more Chris tians and other religious minorities have been charged with blasphemy and imprisoned since Joseph's death.
Last November, Aslam Masih, a Christian shepherd and folk healer from a small town near Faisalabad, was beaten by a mob and stabbed in the back after being accused of desecrating the Qur'an. Authorities are holding him in prison, officially for his own safety. Also in November, two Christians were accused of blasphemy after a dispute with a Muslim neighbor. Their court case has made little progress. In some instances, defense attorneys will intentionally delay cases because they fear if the Christian defendant is released he will be assaulted or killed.
Many activists believe a principal problem for Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities is an unfair election system that limits the representation of minorities in Pakistan's National Assembly.
Joseph Francis of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS), a human-rights group in Lahore, says, "We consider it the main root cause" of persecution.
Zia, in addition to toughening the blasphemy law in the 1980s, made far-reaching changes in Pakistan's constitution and electoral system, carving the country's population into five groups according to religion. Out of 217 seats in Pakistan's lower house or National Assembly, Zia reserved 207 exclusively for Muslim voters and candidates.
The remaining ten seats he divided up among the country's four main religious minorities: Christians and Hindus each received four reserved seats; Parsees and Ahmadis, one each.
"This has been the mother of all evils," asserts Chaudhry. "It's religious apartheid. All misuse of the other discriminatory laws is stemming from the separate electorate system, because the minorities have been marginalized."
Saleem Sylvester, managing editor of Christian Times, a monthly Urdu-language magazine, says, "We don't have any legal or constitutional protection for the minorities." Sylvester is fighting to keep from being evicted from his home on the grounds of the now government-run Forman Christian College in Lahore. Many Christian schools have been nationalized during the past 30 years.
The structure of the electoral system makes it difficult, if not impossible, for religious minorities to pressure the government for legislative change. The four Christian members of the National Assembly, for example, represent all Christians nationwide at large. If a Christian is falsely accused of blasphemy, no politician, either Muslim or Christian, has sufficient incentive to take up his cause. In addition, the Christian members of the Assembly most often are from the Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and home to the vast majority of its Christians.
CHRISTIANITY TARGETED? Some Christian leaders believe Pakistani Christians and Christians overseas have not responded appropriately to the threat posed by the blasphemy law. "This whole issue of blasphemy has been misconstrued in the West," says Dominic Moghal, director of the Rawalpindi-based Christian Study Center, an institute established in 1968 to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue.
"The blasphemy law was not targeting Christians; it was targeting Ahmadiyya." The Ahmadis are despised by Muslims for their belief that Muhammad was not Islam's final prophet.
Moghal says some Pakistani Christians welcomed separate electorates and are now paying the price for their "cantonment" theology. "If you are trying to build dialogue, if you accept Muslims as fellow human beings, if you respect their religion while not losing your own, then blasphemy is not a problem," Moghal says. "We have not been taught to love our neighbors; we've been taught to hate our neighbors."
Moghal says some pastors have denigrated Islam "in order to raise Christ." He calls on Pakistani Christians to "go be part of the broader political life of the people."
Other Christian leaders believe the intense focus on the blasphemy law and the constitution's limits on Christians has been a great distraction for the church.
"I don't even talk about it in the West because there's no way you can begin to explain it," says a missionary with several decades' experience in Pakistan. "I don't think you understand the blasphemy law unless you understand the laws that govern the culture. The law isn't what's the problem. The thing is very complex because of the deep, deep feelings of the average Muslim."
Last November, for example, when a Christian self-styled faith healer and several members of his family had been murdered outside the city of Peshawar, the story spread quickly in the West via e-mail networks that the killings resulted from Muslims persecuting Christians (CT, Jan. 11, 1999, p. 25).
Former Prime Minister Bhutto, in a bid to embarrass her rival Sharif, quickly denounced the killings as religiously motivated. But later investigation showed the murders most likely stemmed from a family feud.
"These stories that are going to the West, they just want to blame the government," says Daniel Shakir, a local Pentecostal pastor in Pakistan. "But the government has nothing to do with this. It is a very local incident."
With the sharp focus on religious persecution globally, some ministries have difficulty in developing interest in worthy outreach efforts. "We try to get the West to be interested in things that are happening in Pakistan," notes the head of a Christian nongovernmental organization based in Peshawar. "We should be happy, but they are getting interested in the wrong thing. And this can actually backfire."
"What concerns me most," says another Westerner, "is that there's this anti-Muslim feeling in America, and that's sad, because Muslims are people too, and they need love just like anyone. Nothing's going to be achieved by hate and prejudice. The church and Christians should be esteeming truth."
A Western pastor expresses dismay at recent news coverage of Pakistan and its blasphemy law. He says, "Yes, there is intolerance. But there are beautiful instances of kindness between Muslims and Christians." He cites the spontaneous hospitality and concern Muslim friends offered him and others last August when U.S. bombing raids on neighboring Afghanistan caused a wave of anti-Western feeling in Pakistan.
BRINGING GOD TO THE PEOPLE: Few missions workers and Pakistani Christians take time to dwell on their adversities. Rather, most of them concentrate on opportunities for ministry. Eiga Francis of CLAAS says, "There isn't any other option. We make the future, and I am quite optimistic that we will make a change."
Pakistani Christians have found some groups and individuals that are worse off than those who are untouchable: Afghan refugees. Babur Samsoon of the Christian organization Shelter Now International (SNI) is cheerfully confident despite working in the dry, barren Akorra Khattak Afghan refugee camp outside Peshawar. "My mission is not to preach. My mission is to present God to people."
According to Samsoon and others, the outside world's interest in Afghan refugees has plummeted since the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989—and aid money has plunged correspondingly. "As long as the Russians were in Afghanistan, there was a lot of support from the West," says the director of sni's Peshawar office, Georg Taubmann, a German national.
"As soon as the Russians left, it just dropped." In 1994, the United Nations cut off aid. "That's when SNI came in, feeding 2,000 people every day" and—with the help of refugees themselves—"building 2,800 mud houses," Taubmann says.
A Christian relief agency director in Peshawar says, "If it were not for the Christian groups, they would get nothing." The refugee problem is getting worse since neighboring Iran is forcing out some of its Afghan refugees.
Rupert Colville, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Islamabad, concedes, "The biggest problem we're facing is financial. Afghanistan is becoming much less attractive to donor countries. At the end of last year, we actually ran out of money, and we took a step that we're not supposed to take, of going into debt."
Faced with decreasing interest in Afghan refugees among Western donors, Pakistani and Western Christians in Peshawar focus on the basics of food and housing.
"When we came here, people were against SNI," Samsoon says. "They said we were very bad, that we were converting people and this and that. But now you see they are very friendly."
Samsoon notes, "If you want to work in a community, you have to take people into your confidence. Get them to trust you, sit and chat with them."
SIGNS OF HOPE? Still, a handful of religious freedom and human-rights activists persist in their efforts against the blasphemy law. Aziz Siddiqui, joint director of the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, looks back over the more than one-dozen blasphemy cases against Christians since 1991. He says, "Thanks to the resistance, things have not been as bad as I feared. The pressure has had an effect."
Within Pakistan, some leaders are pushing for further steps in implementing shari'a law, based on the Qur'an. In the town of Timergarah in the cold mountain valleys of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, Maulana Sufi Mohammed, head of the Movement for the Enforcement of Shari'a, is agitating for a return to stricter enforcement measures. "All the political parties in this area support shari'a. If they reject it, they are infidels," Mohammed told CT.
Despite the hostile attitude of some extremists, there is evidence that the Pakistani government is reawakening to the value of Christian institutions, especially schools.
Last summer, the government returned to the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan ten of its schools, nationalized in 1972. For three years, David Stoner, an American Presbyterian, pressed government officials for exclusive management rights.
Last fall, five of the schools, with 2,500 students, reopened under local Presbyterian leadership after $100,000 in renovations. Zeb Zaman, education board chair, told Presbyterian News Service, "We are united in the belief that quality education that testifies to our faith in the value of each child of God must be the number-one objective of the Christian community." About 62 percent of Pakistanis, age 15 and older, cannot read or write. Thus, schools run by Christians provide a great opportunity for churches and a service to the country. The return of the schools has boosted self-esteem of Pakistani Christians. Stoner says not to expect short-term growth for the church. "But," Stoner observes, "we're not in it for the short term."
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