Life in the Shadows: the Plight of Pakistan’s Christians

Ahmed Ali – Jun 29, 2019

“It is necessary to identify the fact that most of the slums are under the occupation of the Christian community whose members shift to Islamabad from Narowal, Sheikhupura, Shakargarh, Sialkot, Kasur, Sahiwal and Faisalabad, and occupy the government lands so boldly as if they have been allotted to them, and it seems that this pace of occupation of land may affect the Muslim majority in the capital”

– the Capital Development Authority, Islamabad, 2015

The Christians make up 1.6% of the over 200-million population in Pakistan.[1] Most of them are the descendants of Dalit Hindus who converted during the British era. Although a few Christians are comparatively prominent and successful, the Christians tend to be amongst the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Pakistan.[2] Economic deprivation, discrimination, and social exclusion await them at every step. Most Christians live in Punjab, with sizeable populations in Sindh, Islamabad, and KP. In 2018, a Christian support group ‘Open Doors’ ranked Pakistan fifth (out of fifty) most difficult country to be a Christian. Societal prejudice against the Christians is rampant at almost all levels. Many Pakistanis refer to their fellow Christians as ‘Chuhra’, meaning low-caste but also with connotations of janitorial work.

Discrimination against the Christians is so common that often public advertisements for janitorial jobs specifically ask for Christian applicants. In 2013, Pervez Khattak, then the chief minister of KP province and currently Pakistan’s defense minister, publicly declared that only non-Muslims would be recruited as sweepers.[3] Sanitary jobs are normally considered below the dignity of Muslim citizens which is why it is generally thought fit to reserve them for “others” like Christians.

The status of Christians as citizens of Pakistan has declined over decades especially since the 1980s. Till the early 1970s, the Christian churches in Pakistan ran religious schools that served as key centers for the learning of Christian faith and values as well as community gathering. The Bhutto regime nationalized all religious schools in 1972. However later, religious schools of other religions were de-nationalized and returned to the communities, but the Christian schools were not denationalized.[4]

The Conversion and the Disappointment

In the 19th century, the Chuhra (Dalits) were the biggest caste of untouchables in Punjab. Condemned to the bottom of social hierarchy, they mainly did janitorial works for survival. In 1870, the Chuhra caste initiated a mass movement for conversion to Christianity in a bid to escape the plight of lowly life in the society. The movement peaked in 1930s during which the entire Chuhra community converted to Protestant Christians.[5] At the time of Pakistan’s creation, they  emerged as the nascent Protestant Church in Pakistan.

But the question is did the conversion improve the social, economic, or religious status of the Chuhra community? The answer is unfortunately ‘no’. In 1971, Streefland, a sociologist, studied the ‘Chuhra Christians’ of Karachi in order to ascertain if the Christian faith had made any difference in their lives . He found the community was still stuck in the same social and economic misery. They were employed to clean public latrines, sweep the streets, and open the city’s clogged sewerage.[6]

In short, the Chuhra’s mass conversion drive to Christianity that lasted for over half a century (1870-1930s) failed to achieve its objectives. Today, they are as disappointed about their fate as they have ever been. Their desperation and hopelessness are best reflected in the words of Afzal Masih, a Pakistani Christian, who told the Express Tribune that “I am a sweeper; my sons will be sweepers and, in the future, so will my grandsons.”[7] The term Chuhra originally means ‘low caste’, but in Pakistan it has gained further degraded connotations of filthy work that often elicits repulsion amongst members of other communities especially the majority Muslims.

The Christians and the Making of Pakistan

Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s struggle for Pakistan would have been less effective had his political ideals not been propagated so intensely by the Muslim League’s newspaper daily Dawn. Founded by Jinnah, the daily Dawn became a crucial mouthpiece and the top propaganda tool of Muslim League. Its first editor Pothan Joseph, an Indian Christian, aggressively advocated the cause of Muslim League in the early 1940s and disseminated the Muslim viewpoint to the Indian audience. Joseph started or developed over two dozen newspapers including the Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, and the Deccan Herald.[8]

At a time when Jinnah and other Muslims League leaders desperately needed mass support for their political goals, they also turned to the Christians, Parsis, and other minorities and promised them equality of citizenship in the proposed state of Pakistan. When Jinnah presented his celebrated 14 points, the All India Christians Conference instantly endorsed them, while rejecting the Nehru Report.[9] The idea of Pakistan looked promising to many Indian Christians and other non-Muslims who joined hands with the Muslim League to push for the division of India, and creation of Pakistan. Like Indian Muslims, the Indian Christians opposed Hindu-majority rule.[10] The Christian community made remarkable contributions to the development and progress of Pakistan as a nation, especially in the critical formative decades.

In 1940, the All India Muslim League passed its historic Lahore Resolution that later served as the roadmap for the creation of Pakistan. While drafting the resolution, Jinnah was assisted by an Indian Christian, Alvin Robert Cornelius who was a distinguished jurist and a former administrative officer of the Indian civil service. Cornelius was an outspoken speaker of the Pakistan movement. In 1946, he was elevated to the bench of the Lahore High Court as an associate judge. Cornelius opted for Pakistan in 1947 and became one of the pioneers of the judicial system in the newly-born state of Pakistan.

At the time of partition, most of the government machinery and infrastructure were located in India which meant Pakistan had to build many institutions from scratch. The services of highly qualified professionals such as Alvin Robert Cornelius were critical in the initial years. Pakistani Christians like Cornelius contributed immensely to the building of the new state. Cornelius served as law secretary both to Pakistan’s first law minister, Jogendra Nath Mandal, and prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, and advised them on the establishment of the court system in Pakistan. He also advised successive governments on legal matters.

In 1960, Cornelius was appointed the 4th Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), a position he held for eight years. Following his retirement, he served as Pakistan’s law minister in the cabinet of Yahya Khan. Cornelius was a diehard defender of the rights of religious minorities and the freedom of religion in Pakistan.[11] His legal opinions are considered some of the greatest defenses for the freedom of religious practices in the country.[12]

Today, Pakistan is a nuclear power with one of the strongest militaries in the region. And behind this strength is the blood and sweat of Pakistan’s diverse communities. Like all other communities, the Christian community of Pakistan has had an indispensable contribution to the country’s defense. During the wars of 1965 and 1971, Christian officers of the armed forces fought on the forefront. For instance, flight lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was one of the four fighter pilots that attacked a key radar station in Amritsar India in an extremely difficult mission during the 1965 war. Later, he fought as valiantly in the 1971 war against India. He was awarded Sitar-e-Jurat for his remarkable services to Pakistan.

Similarly, another Christian officer in the Pakistan Air Force was Mervyn Middlecoat who was martyred during an aerial fight on 12 Dec 1971. Middlecoat was a strike and fighter pilot and participated in aerial battles during the wars of 1965 and 1971 before sacrificing his life for his country.[13] He was amongst the first air force officers to be sent to the United States for training.

Discrimination

At birth, Pakistan was more tolerant of diversity, and a better place to be a non-Muslim. Diverse communities of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Parsis etc coexisted relatively peacefully. However, progressive radicalization of the political system and society in the subsequent years has overshadowed religious diversity. Like other non-Muslims, the Christians face severe societal discrimination and exclusion in today’s Pakistan. Although no laws target the Christian community specifically, yet several key articles in the constitution favor Islam over other religions. Many Muslims treat their Christian neighbors with contempt, and refer to them with offensive terms.[14] Pakistan has not been an ideal place for religious minorities, yet the Christian community has specifically been reduced to lowly jobs of cleaning toilets and opening filthy drains and sewerage. The federal capital, Islamabad, employs 1500 sanitary workers who are mostly Christians. Likewise, 80% of the 19000 janitors in Pakistan’s economic hub, Karachi, are also Christians.[15]

Besides, the Christians along with Hindus are the primary victims of the bonded labor at Pakistan’s agricultural and brick-making industries.[16] Many brick-kilns give birth to stories of brutal modern-day slavery wherein poor laborers, mostly Christians and Hindus, are often kept in chains, beaten, and abused. In 2017, Christian sanitary workers in Peshawar complained that their Muslim colleagues (also sanitary workers) did not perform their duties, but got their salaries while shifting their responsibilities to Christians.[17]

Discrimination against non-Muslim citizens has become a constant feature of everyday life in the society. Discrimination permeates even the education sector. Christian students face faith-based harassment from their Muslim fellows. The textbooks exclude the contributions of the Christian community in the creation and progress of Pakistan. The educational contents are overdosed with Muslim history and culture that the Christians are also forced to study. Little wonder that many Christian parents prefer to send their children to Christian schools.[18] However, the Christian schools are also forced to buy the same textbooks as Muslims, and every textbook begins with an overview of Muslim faith, even the texts on chemistry and biology.[19]

The state of education among the members of the Pakistan’s Christian community is alarming. A study by the Pehchan Foundation in 2013 found that:

  • 6 % of Christians get primary education
  • 4 % of Christians get high school education
  • 1 % of Christians get college education
  • 5 % of Christians get a professional education[20]

Born, Raised, and Dying in Slums

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the Christians’ exclusion better than the overcast and filthy slums, dotting the otherwise clean and green capital of Islamabad. Generations upon generations of Christian citizens live and die in shantytowns they call home. In Dec 2015, Islamabad’s capital development authority (CDA) launched a drive to eradicate what it called the “ugly” slums. In a report submitted to the Supreme Court, the CDA termed the Christians as refugees who come to the capital to grab government land, but contribute nothing to the national growth. The term “ugly” is frequently used in the report to refer to the shabby homes of the Christian community. In the beautiful town of Islamabad, the slums look like “ugly villages”, the letter said.[21] It went further on to say that:

“It is necessary to identify the fact that most of the katchi abadis (slums) are under the occupation of the Christian community who are shifted from Narowal, Sheikhupura, Shakargarh, Sialkot, Kasur, Sahiwal and Faisalabad and occupied the Government land so boldly as if it has been allotted to them, and it seems this pace of occupation of land may affect the Muslim majority of the capital”[22]

The CDA feared that the growing number of Christians in the slums could threaten the numerical strength of Muslim citizens in Pakistan’s capital. This might sound like a dark comedy, but it gives a critical insight into the thinking and attitude of the society and state towards the Christian citizens. Life in the Christian slums is a nightmare. The settlements are mostly deprived of basic amenities, and an average of seven people including children live in one room. The slum residents complain about the absence of clean drinking water in their areas, but such complaints are barely noticed by the authorities.[23]

Attacks against Christians

For years, Pakistan’s Christian community has faced terrorist attacks, intimidation, harassment, and vigilantism by Muslim mobs. On 22 Sep 2013, two suicide bombers stormed the All Saints Church during a Sunday Mass in Peshawar[24], killing over 85 Christian worshippers including women and children and injuring more than 140.[25] Jundullah, a terrorist group linked to the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.[26] Many of the injured persons were left disabled or paralyzed for life.

Likewise, on 15 Mar 2015, two suicide bombers attacked the Roman Catholic Church and the Christ Church during a Sunday service in the Youhanabad locality of Lahore, killing at least 14 and injuring around 70. Jamaatul Ahrar, an offshoot of TTP, took responsibility for the deadly attack.[27] The next terror assault against Christians came in Dec 2017 when two suicide bombers stormed the Bethel Memorial Church during a Sunday service in Quetta and killed at least nine people and wounded 30.[28] In April 2018, at least six Christians were gunned down in the same city on two separate occasions.

On 13 Jul 2018, a gang of violent Muslims attacked and damaged a church in Faisalabad, Punjab. Eyewitnesses said the attackers attempted to set the church on fire, but failed due to reaction by the police. Later, in August, another Muslim mob attacked a church in Kasur. The Christian men, women, and children were severely beaten as they attempted to defend the premises.[29] Besides, at least four Christians including a boy were killed randomly around the country in Aug 2018.[30]

Blasphemy Allegations

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Mere allegations of blasphemy often lead to brutal lynching. In Nov 2014, a mob of 1200 Muslims burned a Christian couple alive after accusing them of insulting the Holy Quran in Kot Radha Kishan, Punjab. The victims were brick-kiln laborers. The bone-chilling details of the murders shamed Pakistan as a nation. Reporting the gruesome crime, the Daily Mail said:

A pregnant Pakistani woman killed alongside her husband for alleged blasphemy was wrapped in cotton so she would set alight faster, relatives who witnessed the horrific attack revealed. Shama Bibi, 24, and her husband Sajjad Maseeh, 27, also had their legs broken so they could not flee the mob that locked them inside a brick-making factory before their murder.

They picked them up by their arms and legs and held them over the brick furnace until their clothes caught fire,’ family spokesman Javed Maseeh told NBC News. ‘And then they threw them inside the furnace.’ He said Bibi, a mother of four who was four months pregnant, was wearing clothing that did not initially catch fire, so the mob removed her from over the kiln and wrapped her up in cotton to make sure the material would burn faster.

The killings were sparked by the mob’s belief the couple had desecrated a copy of the Koran. By the time the attack was over, only charred bones and the couple’s discarded shoes remained.[31]

The authorities charged 103 people with the murder of the Christian couple, but only 5 of them were convicted of murder by a Lahore court in Nov 2016.[32] Some of the accused were given jail terms, while the rest were set free by the courts.[33] Back in 2009, Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian woman, was accused of insulting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). She was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death. After remaining incarcerated for about a decade, she was declared innocent and released by the Supreme Court. Similarly, a court in Mirpurkhas in Sindh handed down death sentence to a mentally disabled Christian, Yaqoob Bashir, for blasphemy.[34]

On 13 Dec 2018, another court in Jhelum sentenced two Christian brothers Qaisar Ayub and Amoon Ayub to death for allegedly committing blasphemy. They had been in prison since 2015 on blasphemy charges.[35] These are but only a few incidents of violence against the Christian community. Back in Aug 2009, an entire Christian neighborhood in Gojra, Punjab was attacked by Muslim mobs after some Christians were accused of desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. Eight Christians were killed which included four women and a child, and around 40 homes were burned to ashes.[36] Similarly, another Christian neighborhood was attacked in Lahore in 2013.

The table below shows the Christians accused of blasphemy in Pakistan from 1990 to 2009:[37]

Month Year Incidents reported Location
Dec 07 1990 Tahir Iqbal, a Christian man, was accused of abusing Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) at the time of Azaan, and imparting anti-Islamic education to children during tuitions. Lahore
Oct 08 1991 Chand Barkat, 28, was charged with blasphemy by a bangle vendor because of professional jealousy. Karachi
Dec 10 1991 Gul Masih of Faisalabad was charged for using sacrilegious language about the Prophet (PBUH) and his wives Sargodha
Jan 06 1992 Christian teacher Naimat Ahmar, 43, was butchered by a young member of a militant religious group on charges of blasphemy. Faisalabad
1992 Bantu Masih, 80, and Mukhtar Masih, 50, were arrested on the allegation of committing blasphemy. Lahore
Nov 1992 Same Gul Masih, a Christian, charged in 1990 was sentenced to death.

 

Lahore
Feb 1993 Anwar Masih, a Christian, was sent to jail for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Samundari
May 1993 Twelve-year-old Salamat Masih, Manzoor Masih, 37, and Rehmat Masih, 42, were charged with writing derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) on the wall of a Mosque. Gujranwala
April 1994 Manzoor Masih is killed outside the District and Sessions Court after exiting a hearing in blasphemy case. Gujranwala
July 1995 Catherine Shahen, a teacher, was denied her salary on grounds of blasphemy. Lahore
Oct 14 1996 Ayub Masih, a Pakistani Christian bricklayer, was arrested for violation of Section 295-C. Lahore
Oct 19 1997 Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was assassinated in his office after acquitting two people who were accused of blasphemy. Lahore
May 6 1998 Bishop John Joseph of Pakistan shot himself in the Sahiwal courthouse to highlight the 1996 case of Ayub Masih. Sahiwal
October 2000 Younus Shaikh, a teacher, charged with blasphemy on account of remarks that students claimed he made during a lecture. Islamabad
Jul 18 2002 Judge imposed death penalty and a fine of Rs. 500000 on Anwar Kenneth in a blasphemy case registered with the Gawalmandi police. Lahore
Jul 09 2003 A Christian journalist was sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy. KP
Nov 20 2003 Anwar Masih, a Christian laborer was charged for insulting the Prophet (PBUH) in front of his neighbor. Lahore
Aug 11 2005 Judge Arshad Noor Khan found Younus Shaikh guilty of defiling a copy of the Quran, and propagating religious hatred among society.
Nov 12 2005 After receiving frequent death threats, Parvez Aslam Chaudhry, a lawyer who defended many accused for blasphemy, was also physically assaulted outside Lahore High Court. Lahore
May 24 2006 A Christian, Qamar David, was arrested from for allegedly sending blasphemous messages to some Muslims Karachi
Jun 03 2006 Dan Browns’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ declared as blasphemous. Authorities banned the promotion of the movie. Islamabad
Sep 21 2006 Shahid Masih, 17, was jailed on suspicion of ripping book pages containing Quranic verses in Punjab. Punjab
Jan 22 2007 Martha Bibi, a Christian woman, was accused of making derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad and defaming his sacred name. Kasur
Apr 01 2007 Masih, 45, and four other Christians were accused for the desecration of Islamic posters and stickers containing the name of Allah, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and other Islamic verses. Toba Tek Singh
Apr 13 2007 Sattar Masih, a 29-year-old worker at a water pumping station, was allegedly attacked by Muslim extremists for uttering blasphemous remarks. Kotri
May 17 2007 The nursing school at PIMS in Islamabad was shut down and seven Christian staff members suspended after female students of Jamia Hafsa protested over allegations that blasphemy had been committed at the school. Islamabad
Oct 28 2007 The police arrested Muhammad Imran for allegedly setting the Holy Quran on fire. Faisalabad
Mar 06 2008 Altaf Hussain elderly man, was arrested for desecrating the Holy Quran Khanewal
May 2008 The Punjab police jailed Robin Sardar, a Christian physician, upon an accusation of blasphemy. Lahore
Jul 31 2009 Seventy-five houses and two churches were burnt by the residents of a neighboring village over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran Gojra
Aug 01 2009 Eight Christians were burnt alive and 18 others injured in Gojra on charges of blasphemy Gojra
Nov 2010 Asia Bibi Christian woman was charged of blasphemy by local women, she was given death penalty and later she was acquitted by court. Lahore

Suggestions

Improving the Blasphemy Laws: Every government in Pakistan squarely avoids touching upon the blasphemy laws. No amount of domestic or international criticism, condemnation, or pressure has been able to move the government on reforming these laws. The governments’ reluctance is, to some extent, understandable given the deeply entrenched Islamist violent extremism in Pakistani society. The government is too fearful of the Islamists to attempt a reform. However, the government has to take the bull by the horn at one point or another because it cannot just leave its non-Muslim citizens at the mercy of religious extremists who often invoke blasphemy to justify violence. The government must rise to its constitutional responsibilities and protect the lives and honor of all citizens. The blasphemy laws must be improved, at least, to prevent their misuse against religious minorities. The country can no longer afford inaction on this count.

Equal Employment Opportunities: The government must provide equal employment opportunities to all citizens without discrimination. Restricting religious minorities such as Christians to lowly sanitary jobs is, indeed, a matter of national shame. A Christian citizen is as intelligent and mentally capable as any other citizen in this country provided that they are given equal educational and job opportunities. Economic welfare of the citizens is a fundamental responsibility of the state. The government cannot eradicate slums by running bulldozers over them. The best way to get rid of those slums is to improve the economic condition of their inhabitants through equal access to opportunities.

Representation in the State: Regardless of faith, sex, color, race, ethnicity, or language, the state must give all citizens opportunities for national leadership roles. The positions of the president and prime minister must be accessible to all. The constitution must be amended to remove the clauses that prevent the access of non-Muslim Pakistanis to high offices of the state. Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder had categorically declared that the citizens’ religious faith has nothing to do with the business of the state.

Protection against Mob Vigilantism: The Christians are often subjected to mob violence on one pretext or the other. The state must come down hard on the religious vigilantism and mob rule. The right to life is an inalienable right of all citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs. Religious vigilantism must be effectively deterred through exemplary prosecution and legislation. The state must send a clear message to all that it does not tolerate mob violence on religious grounds. Most importantly, the state should reform the educational system especially the textbooks that often promote religious bigotry and hatred against non-Muslims.

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References:

[1] http://www.pbs.gov.pk/content/population-religion

[2]https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Documents/country-information-report-pakistan.pdf

[3] https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2013/07/pakistani-christians-angered-by-sweeper-comment/

[4] https://www.christiansinpakistan.com/christianity-in-pakistan/

[5] John C. B. Webster, The Dalit Christians: A History (Delhi: ISPCK Press, 1992), 39; Frederick and Margaret

Stock, People Movements in the Punjab, with Special Reference to the United Presbyterian Church (South

Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1975), 65.

[6] Pieter Streefland, The Sweepers of Slaughterhouse: Conflict and Survival in a Karachi Neighbourhood (Van

Gorcum, 1979), 30.

[7] https://tribune.com.pk/story/528535/nothing-changes-for-us-we-will-live-and-die-sweeping/

[8] http://josephclan.com/pothanjoseph.htm

[9] https://nation.com.pk/12-Jul-2015/role-of-christians-in-pakistan-movement

[10] Ibid

[11] Gabriel, Theodore P. C. (2007). Christian citizens in the Islamic state: Pakistan experience

[12] https://www.dawn.com/news/623377/a-soft-opening-into-judicial-past

[13] Hali, S.M. (2000). “F-104 Starfighters in Pakistan Air Force”. Defence Journal

[14]http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/constitution/

[15] https://www.ucanews.com/news/christians-selected-for-degrading-jobs-in-pakistan/78708

[16]https://www.refworld.org/docid/510f8dbd2.html

[17] https://www.ucanews.com/news/christians-selected-for-degrading-jobs-in-pakistan/78708

[18] http://www.thevoicesociety.org/over-view/

[19] https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1426168/90_1520500210_easo-pakistan-meeting-report-october-2017.pdf

[20] https://icmica-miic.org/themes/education/1394-education-of-pakistani-christian-students-in-danger.html

[21] https://www.dawn.com/news/1225694

[22] Ibid

[23] http://www.asianews.it/news-en/No-rights-or-drinking-water-for-residents-in-one-of-Islamabad%E2%80%99s-Christian-ghettoes-22614.html

[24] https://www.dawn.com/news/1044668

[25] https://www.ucanews.com/news/christians-remember-peshawar-church-bombing/77210

[26] Ibid

[27] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31894708

[28] https://www.dawn.com/news/1401797

[29] https://www.persecution.org/2018/07/18/gunmen-storm-church-pakistan-settle-property-dispute/

[30] https://www.persecution.org/2018/09/13/pakistani-christians-endure-fourteen-violent-attacks-august/kckc

[31] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2828845/Relatives-Christian-couple-beaten-Pakistani-mob-burned-death-say-d-legs-broken-stop-fleeing-wife-wrapped-cotton-d-burn-faster.html

[32] https://tribune.com.pk/story/1240887/5-sentenced-death-burning-christian-couple-kot-radha-kishan/

[33] https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-20-acquitted-case-christians-burned-alive-blasphemy/29121531.html

[34] https://www.persecution.org/2018/10/24/mentally-disabled-pakistani-christian-sentenced-life-in-prison/

[35]https://www.persecution.org/2018/12/18/christian-brothers-sentenced-death-pakistans-blasphemy-laws/

[36] https://nation.com.pk/02-Aug-2009/9-killed-in-gojra-riots

[37] https://www.dawn.com/news/589587/high-profile-blasphemy-cases-in-the-last-63-years