The rapes of eight Christian Pakistani (seven of them teenagers) near Lahore, combined with suspicions of an official coverup, have outraged local Christians. The resulting court case is becoming a test for whether Christians can get a fair hearing in this Muslim-majority country of 143 million.On a Wednesday last May, the victims and other women were riding home from their jobs at Lavaira Stitching Factory. Another vehicle suddenly began chasing the factory van. The van driver was forced at gunpoint to park in a field. "They separated the Christian girls from the Muslim ones and taking us [Christians] one by one, raped us at gunpoint," one of the victims said in a written statement. "We begged for their mercy and shouted, but there was no one to listen and help us." Muslim women in the van were left unharmed.The victims' families immediately reported the incident to local police. But local residents say the police came to the victims' villages four days later, warning them to be quiet about the crime because their accused attackers were influential.Village police refusing to help Christian victims of violent crime is not unusual. "While the [Pakistani] constitution grants citizens the right to 'profess, practice, and propagate' their religion, the government imposes limits on freedom of religion," says the U.S. Department of State's Human Rights Report for 1999. "Police at times refuse to prevent violent acts or charge persons who commit them."

Threats, intimidation

When police refused to register complaints against the accused, the victims' families turned to the Christian Liberation Front Pakistan (CLFP), a 50,000-member organization advocating human rights for Pakistan's non-Muslim minorities."CLFP believes in peaceful struggle through democratic lines," says Shahbaz Bhatti, CLFP's 30-year-old president. "Our organization's network is present all over the country among religious minorities. We are struggling to promote peace in Pakistan."Bhatti presented the rape victims' case to the higher provincial authorities, who immediately filed charges. The accused were arrested and placed under police custody. "Why am I the target of this discrimination and bias?" one of the rape victims asked CLFP. "Is it because I am a woman and a Christian?""Shahbaz Bhatti personally took interest," one of the victims said. "He visited our village along with a reporter and [encouraged] our families to take a stand against such an atrocity. He said, 'As today it has happened with us, tomorrow there will be other daughters of our community. We should not keep quiet and we must ask for our rights.' His words compelled me to take a stand."The National Daily newspaper launched an investigation into the case, reporting that the assailants were members of an extremist Muslim group. Christian women face extreme prejudice within Pakistani society. Christian women clean waste from houses and cattle stalls, and they are regarded as members of the lowest class in the community. There have been numerous reports of kidnapping, rape, or forced conversion to Islam.Since the arrests of the four rape suspects, the victims and their families have been repeatedly harassed. Some have told the Christians to withdraw their case or face the consequences. Some people in the victims' villages have said the rapes were the victims' fault, and employers have refused to give work to the victims' fathers."In our culture, to be raped means that your life is over," Bhatti says. "A woman is humiliated and considered unclean after sexual relations outside of marriage, and it is not likely that she will ever marry. The girls are very upset. They are devastated."Bhatti's profile is growing internationally because of his advocacy. After Bhatti briefed Robert Seiple, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Seiple turned to his staff members. "When you want to know the truth about what is happening among the religious minorities in Pakistan, you can turn to Shahbaz and expect to get it right, he told them."Bhatti is trying to work within the society and within the country," says Thomas Farr, director of the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom. "This is what makes him potentially productive as an element of Pakistani society working for religious harmony.""A religious apartheid is coming in Pakistan," Bhatti says. "If the international community will not intervene to improve the situation of peace and human rights in Pakistan, it can be another Indonesia in the future."

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Related Elsewhere

International Christian Concern's site offers photos and statistics about the assaulted women and their families.The U.S. State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom , released last week, has more information about Pakistan's religious freedom record over the last year, including more information about rapes.Visit the Islamic Government of Pakistan 's official site.Read the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan .Previous Christianity Today articles about Pakistan include:Two Pakistani Christians Sentenced to 35 Years in Prison | Musharraf retracts new blasphemy law policy in wake of protests. (May 23, 2000) Churches Welcome Pakistan Promise to Ease Restrictions on Minority Faiths | October coup turns out to be beneficial to Christians as blasphemy laws are overhauled. (May 4, 2000) Pakistan's Christians 'Not Shocked' by Life Sentence for Former PM | Life has improved, persecution has eased under new leader, say church leaders. (Jan. 15, 2000) Pakistan's Despised Christians | Despite a Catholic bishop's protest suicide in 1998, Christians hold little hope for repeal of blasphemy law. (April 26, 1999) Muslims Destroy Christian Village | Rumors of a damaged copy of the Qur'an incite riot. (April 7, 1997)Other media coverage includes:Musharraf fires a broadside at Vajpayee | India Abroad News Service (Sept. 11, 2000) Pakistan After the Coup | BBC (July 31, 2000)

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