Pakistan’s Christians Living in Fear

BY Fred de Sam Lazaro  September 25, 2013 at 4:44 PM EDT

PBS NewsHour will have a report on the plight of Christians in Pakistan on Monday’s program.

Pakistan’s churches, like their congregants, are not numerous but they’ve been drawn into the U.S.-led war on militants in this region, becoming both frontier and collateral damage. When news breaks — whether a drone strike here or an obscure pastor in Florida attempting to burn Qurans, Christians, fewer than 2 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million, brace themselves for consequences on their doorstep.

“We always live in a state of tension,” Joseph Coutts, the Roman Catholic bishop of Pakistan’s commercial capital, Karachi, said in a story to be broadcast on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. “What’s going to happen next and where is it going to happen?”
Sunday’s suicide bombing that killed 78 at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, near the Afghan border, was the latest in a string of attacks in recent months and years. In March, two churches and about 100 Christian homes were ransacked in the eastern city of Lahore.

As adherents to a faith long linked to the West, and America in particular, Christians and churches make convenient proxies and targets for retaliation, he said, compounding an already second-class citizenship many have endured for decades.

Pakistan was created in 1947 by the departing British colonial rulers to be a haven for the Muslims of India. Unlike Hindus who left after the Indian sub-continent’s bloody partition, Christians remained in the regions that became Pakistan. Most were natives or had migrated here generations earlier and they were reassured by Pakistan’s revered founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, that they’d be treated as equal citizens.

However, his successors — notably Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the military dictator Zia ul Haq in the seventies — ushered in changes that reflect a strict conservative brand of Islam. Today, Christians say the discrimination they face is not just social and economic but also constitutional. Non-Muslims cannot serve as president, prime minister or federal judges, for example. It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to any other faith.

Discrimination has long been a way of life for Christians in Pakistan according to human rights activists. Even with affirmative action-like programs to provide public sector jobs to religious minorities, few are able to rise in the ranks.

Most frightening to Christians and other minorities — including minority sects within Islam — is a blasphemy law, reworked under ul Haq, which prescribes the death penalty for insulting Islam’s Prophet. The law is invoked easily — often to settle property or business disputes — by, say, accusing someone of burning pages of the Quran. Vigilante justice swiftly swings into action, long before any legal process can sort out if there’s truth to the allegation.

“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,” said Roland de Souza, partner in a Karachi engineering firm, who is Catholic. “Even if he is rescued from this crowd by the police the police station is surrounded by people baying for his blood.” By some estimates, about 250 blasphemy cases have been lodged and some 52 people lynched after being accused of blasphemy.

Along with deteriorating law and order and economic conditions, Bishop Coutts says, has risen a violent intolerance over recent decades; a narrow form of extremism that is “not only ready to kill someone for a perceived wrong but even ready to die for it.”