The Untouchables' Church

Despite a Catholic bishop's protest suicide in 1998, Christians hold little hope for repeal of blasphemy law.

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 ...

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