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The ballot box bestows power on Christians

At last the minorities have a voice that must be heard

The ballot box bestows power on Christians
Silent Thinker, Lahore

March 22, 2013

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The burning of the Joseph Colony in Lahore on March 9 shocked Christians into a wave of nationwide protests, including the closure of Christian schools. It also prompted the Catholic Church, at last, to initiate an interdenominational campaign against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which completed another five-year term in Punjab province this week.

The persecuted minorities have been left with no choice but to give up on the country’s largest conservative political force and second largest party. Almost all major incidents of anti-Christian mob violence, spurred by allegations of blasphemy, occurred while they were in power in the province.

These include the 1997 destruction of 785 houses and four churches in Shantinagar, a 2009 arson attack on Christian homes in Bahmani Wala and the burning alive of seven Christians as well as the torching of houses and churches in Gojra that same year.

“It is regrettable that the Punjab administration has not learned any lessons from previous incidents and totally failed in providing protection to a minority community under siege. The ultimate responsibility for Lahore tragedy rests squarely with the provincial government,” Zohra Yusuf chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said on March 13.

Catholic Church workers are now regularly blocking traffic around Lahore Press Club where they condemn the former provincial government for its failure to protect the minorities.

However a press release handed to the media during the first of these demonstrations, also on March 13, took me by surprise.

“We strongly demand the return and rehabilitation of Church properties. It has been more than a year and the Punjab government has been dodging us despite repeated promises,” the opening paragraph stated.

It was referring to the bulldozing of Gosh e Aman, an 8,093 sq.m. piece of land that is worth billions, that once housed a chapel, a home for the elderly, an agricultural lab, a sewing center and a convent.

Leaders of other Christian denominations joined the Catholic Church in claiming the historic property last year, but the protests subsided within a month.

Many priests later kept wondering where would be next. “It is as if we handed over the land on a plate,” one once told me.

At that time, we were told the Church was negotiating with the then provincial minister for minorities and that any unwise move would harm these talks.

This deception only became clear recently, only a week before the government was dissolved.

There is no denying the goodwill of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz toward Lahore, known as the “Heart of Pakistan” in popular culture.

The most notable development projects it has undertaken include establishing the country's first rapid mass transit bus system, distribution of laptops among the young and the building of subways.

Yet it gave in to religious extremism for all this. The party failed to crack down and sometimes formed electoral alliances with militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This group, based in southern Punjab, has openly claimed responsibility for attacking religious minorities, especially the ethnically distinct Shia Hazara community.

At least 502 Shia’s were murdered last year alone.

Upset with a scared chief minister, the Christian campaign has the potential to affect the traditional vote bank.

Among Punjab province’s 148 National Assembly constituencies, Christians account for more than 20,000 votes in at least 47 electoral districts. Similarly, there are more than 10,000 Christian voters in 56 constituencies of the province.

President Asif Ali Zardari is overseeing the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, having announced on Wednesday a general election for the National Assembly on May 11. 

Christians now have the chance to stand up and choose candidates with pro-minority agendas.

They have to exercise their voting power to denounce politicians whose main interest is in benefiting from the damage and not preventing it from happening. They should vote only for those who have a clear stance on dealing with the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

The Christian minority has no political party of its own, but it can influence the election outcome, depending on how firmly it holds its ground this time.  

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore

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