Under the Gun: The Hard Lives of Pakistani Christians

Five minutes can make all the difference. As I finished a dinner conversation with a Pakistani Senate aide in Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel, my colleague engaged in a physical tug-of-war over the check with our host, a local Christian human-rights activist. He insisted on paying and, once he did, suggested we leave. It seemed abrupt—generally, after a meal, one allows the conversation to continue for a few minutes until it reaches a natural conclusion. That was not to be the case here. Nevertheless, our host’s sudden mood change—inexplicable even to him—saved our lives.

Five minutes after we left the hotel, a bomb ripped through the lobby, injuring many and destroying the ground floor. We would have been there.

Our narrow escape, while giving us a taste of the dangers that exist in Pakistan, was no more than a passing experience compared with the daily threats of discrimination, intimidation, harassment, hate propaganda, torture, and terror that Christians and other religious minorities face. And although activist Shahbaz Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), says that “Christians are the easiest targets in Pakistan because they are poor, they can’t raise their voices, and they can’t fight cases,” they’re not the only ones affected by unjust laws and militant Islam. Moderate Muslims and women are among the victims, too.

Unspeakable Horrors

Some victims of injustice are the most vulnerable in society. Take seven-year-old Sharee, for example—a Christian girl with a gentle smile. Last May, the unspeakable happened. As she played outside the hut she shared with her mother, Sharee was lured away and brutally raped and tortured by a Muslim man—simply because she was from a Christian family. Found several hours later near a graveyard under a railway bridge on the Qurban line, she was hysterical, badly bruised, and covered in blood. “I thought she was dead,” recalled her mother, sitting with me and Sharee in a secret location. “The man tried to kill her by strangling her, and she was badly beaten around the head.”

It would be comforting to think that Sharee’s case was an exception, but it’s one of many. According to Bhatti, the APMA cares for at least 40 girls who have been sexually assaulted, and there are likely many others whose cases go unreported. “We want justice against this cruelty,” Sharee’s mother said, wiping away tears. While she still has the appearance of a smiling, tranquil child, the little girl continues to suffer the traumatic effects of that terrible day. “If a Muslim girl is raped, all Muslims come to help. But because we are Christians, no one has helped except APMA,” her mother said.

Women of all religious backgrounds and ages are vulnerable in Pakistan. In Lahore, I went to a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence and the threat of “honor killings.” The location and name of the shelter must be kept secret, but it was founded in 1990 by a group of prominent female human-rights lawyers, conscious of the dangers women face. Two women I spoke with have stories typical of others in the shelter.

One, a beautiful 19-year-old whom I shall call Benazir (not her real name), was forcibly married in April last year while still in school. Her husband—who is also her cousin—is two years younger and gambles and drinks heavily. Almost immediately after their wedding, he started beating her. But when she complained to her parents, her father dismissed her, claiming that this was what marriage was all about. Her husband had every right to abuse her, he said. Later, when she fled to her parents’ home and refused to go back to her husband, her father and aunt beat her. Confused and hurt by her parents’ lack of compassion, she ran away. With the support of her mother and sister, her husband filed a case against another family in the village, falsely accusing their son of committing adultery with her. This other family was arrested by the police and jailed, while Benazir received death threats from her own family.

A second woman at the shelter, whom I’ll call Asma, is a 20-year-old who had arrived from Gujranwala just a few days before I met her. She had been forcibly married two years ago and now has a baby daughter. When she was just a year old, her parents divorced, and her mother remarried. A few years later, her mother’s uncle was murdered, and the culprits were never brought to justice. Ten years after that, the same people who had killed the uncle asked Asma’s mother to give her daughter in marriage to their son. Asma’s mother refused and began to receive threats from the family. Then one day, as Asma and her mother were walking in the street, the son approached them and shot her mother dead. He approached Asma’s other relatives to negotiate a marriage with her, and when that failed he stormed the house, fired shots, and forcefully took her. He beat, tortured, and sexually abused her—even threatening to kill her as he demanded that she hand over the money and land she’d inherited.

Eventually, she was able to escape. Unfortunately, even in the shelter, her husband’s family tracked her down, and 30 relatives arrived at the office, demanding to see her. “He will never leave me; he will kill me,” she wept. “I want to divorce and leave the country. I don’t feel safe here.”

Blasphemy Law

One of the worst examples of Pakistani injustice is the “Blasphemy Law,” set out in Section 295 of the Penal Code. “No other law in the name of religion has had a more devastating and massive effect in recent years than the blasphemy law,” the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace argues. Introduced by the former military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in 1985, the law prohibits blaspheming against the prophet Mohammad, defiling the Koran, and insulting Islam. The penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet is death.

“This law is a weapon in the hands of extremists,” said one minority leader. From the creation of Pakistan in 1947 until the introduction of the blasphemy law, Muslims and Christians lived largely in harmony, with little religious violence. But since 1985, the number of deaths, false convictions, wrongful imprisonments, torture cases, and instances of religious strife has risen significantly. Between 1986 and 2003, at least 280 cases of blasphemy were registered.

The key problem is that the law simply requires the testimony of one Muslim man against anyone else for a case to be registered. The end result is that the blasphemy laws often have little to do with blasphemy; accusations can be entirely falsified and used to settle scores. The vast majority of cases are actually against Muslims, in personal disputes unrelated to religion. But at least 78 Christians have been charged with blasphemy since the law was introduced, and once charged—even if acquitted—they’re marked for life. Although the death penalty has never been carried out by the state, Islamic extremists try to take the law into their own hands. In prison, a blasphemy suspect is in constant danger and, if released, faces a lifetime in hiding.

In August 2003, Naseem Bibi was beaten to death by other prisoners three months after she and her two sons were jailed for blasphemy. They had been falsely accused of burning pages of the Koran. In the same year, Yusuf Ali was shot dead in the same prison, and Mushtaq Zafar was gunned down as he left a Lahore court hearing. Last year, blasphemy suspect Samuel Masih died of injuries after being attacked by a policeman with a brick cutter as he lay in a hospital bed suffering from tuberculosis, and Nasir Masih also died at the hands of police torturers.

Aslam Masih spent almost five years in jail on false blasphemy charges, enduring severe beatings and torture. A Christian sheep farmer from a village near Faisalabad, he fell victim to Muslim jealousy. First, Muslims refused to pay for purchases from him, then they stole all his sheep and goats. Finally, one man registered a blasphemy case against him, accusing him of desecrating the Koran and blaspheming the Prophet. In jail, he was beaten by other prisoners with heavy canes, despite being held in solitary confinement. During his trial, 100 mullahs surrounded the court, intimidating the judge.

The scare tactics worked initially. With two life sentences and a heavy fine, his case seemed almost impossible. But through international campaigning and the hard work of his brave lawyer, he won his appeal in the high court and was acquitted. Now, he lives in hiding, where I met him. Even there, he cannot be assured of safety. One hiding place was discovered by extremists, who attacked and set fire to the building. Miraculously, Masih escaped. The lawyer who defended his case said, “He has no choice but to live in hiding. He lives in danger. A normal life is not possible for a former blasphemy prisoner, even if he has been acquitted.”

At least 30 blasphemy cases are awaiting trial, including those of Christians such as Parvez Masih, Ranjha Masih, Augustine “Kingri” Masih, and Shahbaz Masih (they are unrelated, as Masih is a common Christian surname). “This law is an extremely bad law,” said I. A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “It overlooks the question of intent.” While Pakistan’s President Musharraf has made welcome calls for reform of the law, measures introduced last year simply change the procedures for registering a blasphemy case, while leaving the effects of the law untouched. “Procedural improvements may reduce the hardship in some cases, but they cannot overcome the problem of definition of the law,” Rehman argues. “Before this law was introduced, we had no cases of blasphemy. This is a law which creates offenses rather than preventing them.”

In 1998, John Joseph, the Catholic bishop of Faisalabad and a tireless campaigner for the repeal of the blasphemy laws, felt he had to act. According to his friend, war hero and prominent human-rights activist Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, what he did was “pre-meditated and pre-planned.” Bishop Joseph had given warning some months previously, when he said that if the Pakistani government refused to repeal the blasphemy law, “We will launch a protest which will stun the whole world.” The authorities dismissed the warning, and so after Ayub Masih, a Christian, had been sentenced to death for blasphemy, the bishop sent a fax to the Vatican. He wrote: “I only hope and pray that God accepts the sacrifice of my blood for his people.” After seven days of fasting and prayer, Bishop Joseph came to Lahore and, dressed in his white cassock, shot himself on the steps of Lahore’s high court.

Growing Threats

Ultimately, the bishop’s sacrifice did little to change things. Those accused of blasphemy are still jailed, their lives in danger. Those who convert from Islam to another religion are guilty of “apostasy,” for which the penalty is death, and so they’re forced to maintain a secret identity. According to one Muslim who converted to Christianity, “secret converts have to develop their own culture, their own community.” And now minorities face a fresh danger in the North-West Frontier Province that borders Afghanistan.

The province is governed by an extremist coalition, the Muttahia Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which also shares power in Balochistan. In elections in 2002, the MMA gained only 12 percent of the national vote, an increase of 5 percent, but their number of seats in the national assembly rose from five to 55. An MMA leader, Munawar Hasan, has said publicly that “the Taliban and al-Qaeda are our brothers,” and when the MMA was elected in the province, they held processions in several cities in which they paraded pictures of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

Less than a year after gaining power in North-West Frontier Province, the MMA-led Provincial Assembly adopted sharia law as its governing code. “From today, sharia law will be implemented in the province and there will be no place for those who refuse to follow it,” Chief Minister Akram Durran declared. Now the MMA proposes to introduce a Hisba Act, to impose sharia law on every aspect of daily life. A district council will be led by a Muslim cleric, and its decisions cannot be challenged outside sharia courts. It requires the establishment of mosques in all government buildings, and eventually in all public buildings, including shopping centers, schools, and hospitals. “This law will strengthen the extremist elements in Pakistan, and increase religious intolerance and hatred against the minorities,” one activist told me. “It will lead to the Talibanization of North-West Frontier Province.”

There are outspoken opponents of the Hisba Act. APMA has organized public protests outside the Provincial Assembly, involving over 500 Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, despite warnings from the MMA that opposition to the law will be viewed as “anti-Islamic.” APMA plans to challenge the legislation in the high court and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. “We will not allow the MMA to make Pakistan a Taliban state,” said Bhatti.

Moderate Muslim Senator Zahid Khan, a member of the progressive liberal democratic Awami National Party who represents a district bordering Afghanistan, calls the Hisba Act “Mullah martial law.” Rehman believes it is “the result of the Pakistan military’s foolishness in using mullah power as a counterweight to political power,” arguing that it will create “a vigilante force that will interfere in ordinary people’s lives. The weaker elements in society—women, minorities, children, workers—will be hit hardest. It will create a climate of fear.”

Khan is a brave man. Despite representing a district in North-West Frontier Province, he speaks out boldly against the MMA and in support of democratic values. He is convinced that the MMA is a creation of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, and brands them the “Mullah-Military Alliance.” Rehman agrees. “The military and the mullahs are first cousins if not brothers,” he says, bonded by a common interest. “They are both anti-democratic, anti-federal, and authoritarian. They see things in black and white, with no shades of gray. They don’t deal with people, just enemies.”

But opponents of the MMA have a lot of work to do to gain international support. Khan expressed frustration that Western governments, particularly the United Kingdom, are engaged in regular dialogue with the MMA but do little to support pro-democracy groups like the Awami National Party. A Western diplomat in Islamabad confirmed this—and his comments shocked me. “People get very worried about the MMA, but they shouldn’t. They are just men with big beards who make a lot of noise,” he said. When I pointed out that the MMA had already introduced sharia law, his response was extraordinary: “What is the problem with sharia law?”

Similarly, Western governments don’t appear to understand the dangers of the expanding madrassas—or Islamic schools—in Pakistan. There are an estimated 29,000 of them, although fewer than 9,000 are registered with the Pakistani government. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, madrassas are “the fastest growing segment within the education sector.” Many teach a radical, militant brand of Islam and are recruiting and training centers for terrorists. Students from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Africa continue to study in Pakistani madrassas—more than 10,000 in Sindh province alone.

While the Pakistani government puts on an appearance of reforming the madrassas by encouraging them to register and become part of the mainstream education system, this has actually resulted in the funding and legitimizing of radical Islam. Madrassa students are offered degrees—and computers—by the government. Not only does the provision of computers serve to equip terrorists with a means of worldwide communication, but granting secular qualifications will enable militants to infiltrate the civil service.

“Bringing madrassas into the mainstream is extremely dangerous. It will lead to the mullahization of society,” said Rehman. “The mullahs will not be content with education—they will compete in civil service examinations, entry into the armed forces and other secular professions, spreading their influence. It will intensify the efforts of the mullahs to capture the state.”

Some Modest Progress

But the news is not all bad in Pakistan. Peter Jacob, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, says that, “While many times people in Pakistan say that democracy and human rights are part of a Western agenda and they accuse activists of being agents of the West, Jews, and India, the human-rights family in Pakistan is increasing day by day and we are winning the argument.” Church of Pakistan Bishop Samuel Azariah is “slightly encouraged” that reforms could bring change.

The most significant victory to date is the abolition of the separate electorate system. Chaudhry, a Catholic who resigned as a fighter pilot from the air force after he was denied promotion because of his faith, believes that the promotion of social harmony is the key to countering extremist Islam. A prominent human rights activist and outspoken champion of persecuted Christians, Chaudhry led the campaign for the restoration of a joint electorate system. Under the system of separate electorates, Muslims could only vote for a Muslim candidate, Christians for a Christian candidate, and Hindus for a Hindu candidate. This meant no political interaction among religious communities. “It resulted in a close marriage between politics and religion, because candidates were elected on religious grounds. It fragmented the entire population of Pakistan, violated basic political human rights, and totally disrupted the social harmony of the country,” he says. “It created sectarianism, which is tearing this country apart.”

To campaign for joint electorates, a broad coalition was formed. Roman Catholics and Pentecostals came together to establish the National Christian Action Forum in 1998, with Chaudhry as executive secretary. A year later, the even broader Christian Organization for Social Action in Pakistan (COSAP) was launched. President Musharraf’s first meaningful reform—the joint electorate system—was restored in 2002.

In 2001, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, COSAP was able to respond rapidly to minimize an anti-Christian backlash. Social harmony committees were established in all parishes, and Chaudhry traveled throughout the nation to address clergy and lay people and help them prepare for repercussions from the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. He also established a crisis group with a hotline to handle emergencies. Chaudhry believes that, although there were some attacks on churches after the war in Afghanistan, many were prevented by COSAP’s preemptive action.

Bishop Azariah has also started to engage in dialogue with Muslim fundamentalists. He perceives some “slight openness” on their part, having participated in interreligious talks in Oslo last summer and Islamabad—under the chairmanship of President Musharraf—last fall. The bishop has hosted a lunch in his home for a group of Islamic clergy, something unimaginable five years ago. “This is a breakthrough. We still have our doubts and fears, but we also believe that President Musharraf is the most minority-friendly leader we have ever had.”

Yet there’s a long way to go. Human-rights activists and lawyers who defend blasphemy cases do so at great risk, facing threats from religious extremists and the authorities. Aslam Masih’s lawyer has been attacked and threatened. After one blasphemy case, Islamic militants stopped his car, beat him, held a gun to his head, and told him: “We will not leave you. You are an enemy of Islam.”

“We Christians are living among the hunting dogs,” Bhatti told me. “They want to see us dead.”


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk). He has co-authored a book with Joseph D'Souza: "On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission."

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