TOPICS > Nation

Pakistani Christians Targeted by Recent Violence, Blasphemy Law

September 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Christians make up only 2 percent of the population of Pakistan, but the country's colonial past makes the religious minority a target for grievances against the West. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports that suicide bombings, attacks on churches and a law against blasphemy have left Pakistani Christians living in fear.

GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to Pakistan, where a church bombing last week took the lives of nearly 80 people.

As special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports, many in the country’s Christian community are living in fear.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Pakistan was founded as a Muslim nation, but Christians are thought to number around 2 percent of this country’s 190 million people.

Churches like St. Patrick’s Cathedral date back to colonial days, this one built for Irish Catholic soldiers in the British army. Today’s Christians are mostly descendants of converts from Hinduism or Islam long before Pakistan became a country. They consider themselves fully Pakistani, but often, Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts says, that’s not how they’re perceived.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS, Catholic Diocese of Karachi: Because of our colonial past Christianity has been, is being identified with colonialism.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With the West?

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS: With the West in general. We are sort of linked with being products of the West.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s made Christians in Pakistan targets for all kinds of grievances against the West, whether a drone strike close to home or an anti-Islamic pronouncement in Florida.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS: I can give you a very dramatic example. We had, I think about two years back, a pastor, or he claimed to be a pastor, but if he was, I don’t know, Terry Jones, an American pastor who wanted to burn the Holy Koran, and of course there was the sort of a backlash on the Christians, and we had to make it very clear that we are not to be identified with this Reverend Terry Jones.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Last week’s suicide bombing that killed at least 78 people in a Peshawar church compound was the worst ever, but not the first against Christians this year. In March, two churches and 100 Christian homes were attacked in the eastern city of Lahore.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS: We see an increasing form of Islam which is much more militant, which is much narrower and even quite extremist. Even Islamic sects that are not considered orthodox are also being targeted, which is not the Islam of the majority, which is a very moderate, open-minded Islam.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says a moderate Islam shaped early Pakistan, created in 1947 by the departing British to be a home for Muslims.

But that moderation began to erode with growing fundamentalism. Christians, long subject to social and economic discrimination, became constitutionally second-class. Non-Muslims are ineligible to be president or prime minister, for example. In the late ’70s, a militant resistance, today’s Taliban, grew to the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, with strong U.S. support, Coutts adds.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS: So the policy was, stop the darn communists, stop them at any cost.

And that’s the time these, this brand of Islam was the madrassa, which is a centuries-old institution in Islam to teach the Koran. Many madrassas became sort of centers for a religious kind of brainwashing, for jihad, and with American blessing and support and training and money. Our economy became strong. The worst military dictator we had, Zia-ul-Haq, was kept in power.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zia-ul-Haq supported the jihadists and also imposed a conservative interpretation of Muslim Sharia law. Most frightening for many even today is a blasphemy law. Anyone accused is subject to imprisonment without bail and at least on paper faces a death sentence.

This law is commonly used against to settle personal grudges or business disputes and often used against non-Muslims, says Roland de Souza, partner in a Karachi engineering firm.

ROLAND DE SOUZA, engineer: Somebody comes and accuses someone of either burning a page of the Koran or having said something against the prophet of Islam, and before anybody can actually be arrested under the law, vigilante justice takes over. The news is spread in the neighborhood, and most of these neighborhoods are either slums or rural areas, and people come out wanting to lynch the accused.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: By one report, since the late ’80s, some 250 blasphemy cases have been brought and an estimated 52 people lynched or killed after being accused of blasphemy.

Why would somebody believe me if I ran out into the street and said you are burning pages of the Koran or doing something else that was insulting of your religion?

ROLAND DE SOUZA: I can see you come from America. Just on the road here, if somebody stood in the middle and said a mosque has been burned in someplace, whether it’s Jordan or in Saudi Arabia, let’s go and burn St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he could probably collect 5,000 to 10,000 people within 15 minutes.

If I was in New York City and I were to stand up there and say, the Muslims have destroyed St. Peter’s Cathedral, let’s go and burn that mosque three blocks down, somebody would probably slip down to the nearest telephone and call the police and say, there’s a crazy guy who’s standing out here. Can you come and get him? That is the difference.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The crazy guy in New York, why does he become the credible guy on the street here?

ROLAND DE SOUZA: It’s a good question. I’m not sure that I can answer entirely. One is the level of education. The second is the level of frustration. So, you want to hit out against somebody. A big bogeyman is the West, America, and, by consequence of relation, Christians.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite the relatively small number of Christians, Christian institutions, especially schools, remain strong and open to all. Many of the country’s Muslim elite attended Christian schools.

Principal Irene Pearl says Trinity Methodist Girls School is committed to admitting children from poor families, many from the Christian minority. But there’s no hint of Christ in the morning prayer.

IRENE PEARL, Trinity Methodist Girls Higher Secondary School: We do not talk or quote the Holy Bible. We say, let us be good human beings. Let us be good daughters, let us be good Pakistanis, but above all, let us be good human beings.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It is illegal in Pakistan for a Muslim to convert to any other faith, and Pearl wants to dispel any notion that the school is trying to convert Muslims, who account for 60 percent of her students.

IRENE PEARL: I have to be extremely careful how I word myself. Sometimes, you know, like we have a Christmas concert. The children want to participate, the Muslim children want to participate — participate, but I say, no, get a permission letter from your parents.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She thinks Muslim parents are mostly satisfied that their children are getting a good education with patriotic values. But she fears few would come to her support in a pinch, for their own safety. Just two years ago, a prominent political leader was gunned down after calling for mercy for a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

His assassin was cheered by crowds, and dozens of lawyers offered to defend him for free.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS: We feel most of the time we are not equal — not only not equal, but the growing feeling that we are not even wanted.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a feeling that he says has driven many of his congregants out of the country, though there are no clear figures on such emigration. However, the vast majority of Christians and many other minorities are too poor and don’t have that choice.

GWEN IFILL: A version of Fred’s story can be seen on the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

His reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.