Pakistani Christian refugees Cheryl and Peter Malik with their three teenage sons in Bangkok. They will soon be leaving Thailand for a new life in Canada. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
When Cheryl Malik turned up one day for the class she taught in the afternoons at a privately run tutoring school in Pakistani city Lahore, she knew something was wrong.
There were no students waiting for her in the classroom on that August day in 2013, yet no one had told her that her class had been canceled. "The school's principal asked me into his office," Malik (not her real name) recalls. "I was surprised."
Her surprise turned to trepidation. Seated around a table were several of her colleagues who were eyeing her with visible anger and disapproval. One of the teachers, an excitable fellow who, Malik says, had often scolded and berated her for being a Christian, started waving a handful of pages accusingly at her. They had been torn from a book.
"You did this! You desecrated our Holy Quran!" the man, a lecturer in Islamic studies, claimed.
He was accusing Malik, a Catholic who by day also taught Urdu and social studies at a Christian school in Lahore, of having torn some pages from a copy of the Quran and thrown them to the floor to trample them under her desk in her office at the Muslim-run school.
Malik maintains she did no such thing and told her Muslim fellow teachers so. An amiable mother of three who speaks fluent English, she recalls her accuser insisting to her colleagues: "Of course she did it! She's a Christian. She insulted our Holy Prophet!"
Her colleagues, she says, all took the man's side and were equally riled up. "In Pakistan if someone wants to destroy you, all they have to do is say you've committed blasphemy," Malik says.
Accusations of blasphemy meted out to Christians and other religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim nation, where strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia are widespread, routinely have lethal consequences.
In 2014, an enraged mob brutalized an illiterate Christian couple, identified only as Shama and Shehzad, in the town of Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore, for allegedly burning a copy of the Quran in a brick kiln where they had been working as bonded laborers. The mob proceeded to burn Shama and Shehzad alive.
That same year, a Pakistani Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, from the town of Gojra in Pakistan's Punjab province, were sentenced to death for blasphemy after they allegedly sent text messages containing insults of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, to the imam of a mosque. That couple, too, were illiterate and the messages were sent in English, a language they could not speak, much less write, according to human rights activists.
Rights activists also alleged that Shafqat, who was confined to a rickety wheelchair because of an old spinal injury, was tortured by police into confessing. In Pakistan, insulting the Quran and Muhammad are punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Even innocuous messages shared on social media can mean a death sentence. Last year Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian man, was sentenced to death in Gujrat town in Punjab province for sending irreverent comments about Muhammad on WhatsApp to a Muslim friend, who reported James to authorities.
When someone is accused of blasphemy, locals often take matters into their own hands in lynch mobs. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent watchdog, says the country's authorities aid the persecution of people accused of blasphemy and routinely turn a blind eye when alleged blasphemers are brutalized or murdered by angry locals.
"An overarching concern," the HRCP notes in its report this year regarding the extrajudicial harassment and murder of religious minorities, "is that even where the protection of legislation exists, the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators has remained at a very low level."
Malik says that when her colleagues set upon her, she immediately began fearing for her life. "They started to slap me and beat me," she says. "They pushed me to the floor. They beat me badly."
Her accuser took a metal ruler and, using its sharp edge as a blade, slashed one of Malik's wrists, opening a gaping, badly bleeding wound that has left an ugly scar. "Is this the hand you used to defile our Holy Quran?" she recalls the Muslim cleric demanding to know.
"I didn't know what they were going to do to me," Malik says. "They could have killed me."
Distraught, she started pleading to her fellow teachers. "I told them: 'Please forgive me. I made a mistake,'" she remembers. "I said, 'I have to go now. My children are small. They need me.'"
By way of repentance for her alleged blasphemy, she agreed to convert to Islam. "They told me to bring my children so that they could convert too," she says.
Malik agreed. Her colleagues allowed her to leave, expecting her to return shortly with her children. Yet that same afternoon she and her husband Peter took their three boys and left Lahore to stay with relatives in the countryside.
Two months later, the family of five flew to Thailand from Karachi on a tourist visa in the hope of seeking asylum as refugees. "We weren't safe in Pakistan," stresses Peter, a mild-mannered man who is a chef by profession and suffers from a chronic liver ailment. "They came looking for us at our home. They went to my sister's house."
Like thousands of other Pakistani Christians fleeing religious persecution, the Maliks and their three children, who are now in their early teens, ended up being stranded in Thailand, a freewheeling, predominantly Buddhist nation where Christians and Muslims are free to practice their religion without fear of harassment.
However, Thailand has refused to sign up to the United Nations' Refugee Convention, and few asylum seekers are accorded refugee status. The vast majority of the several thousand Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand are deemed illegal migrants by virtue of having overstayed their tourist visas. They are subject to periodic police crackdowns. If caught, they face the prospect of prolonged detention at Bangkok's overcrowded Immigration Detention Center (IDC) and of being deported back to Pakistan.
Jobless and undocumented, most Pakistani asylum seekers in Bangkok subsist on handouts from Christian charities and bide their time in small, sparsely furnished units in decrepit low-rent apartment buildings. They do their best to stay out of sight as they keep praying for a chance to relocate to a Western nation that agrees to grant them asylum.
They routinely do this for years, constantly fearing a knock on the door from the police that might land them in Bangkok's dreaded IDC, where visa overstayers are kept, often indefinitely, in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Cheryl Malik's elderly father, who soon followed her to Thailand, died inside the prison-like detention center, where he had been taken after being detained by police for overstaying his visa. "He had been sick and couldn't get his medications inside the IDC," she says.
Yet despite that tragedy, the Maliks have been more fortunate than many other Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand. Cheryl found work as a teacher at a Christian school for refugees, which helped the family financially.
Many Christian asylum seekers in Bangkok, especially from Pakistan's Punjab province, are uneducated and have dark skin, which is routinely associated with low social status not only back home in Pakistan but in Thailand as well. Their lack of education and English skills makes it hard for them to land jobs in Bangkok beyond low-paid menial work at construction sites or as cleaners. Yet they tend to shun even these forms of employment for fear of being nabbed by police as they travel to and from work.
The Maliks have been lucky in other ways too. Last year, after years of waiting, they were finally granted refugee status by the United Nations' Refugee Agency. It's a privilege afforded to few other Pakistani Christians in Bangkok, albeit even that status comes with little legal protection in Thailand.
Best of all, the family has just been selected for an immigration sponsorship program to Canada thanks to a Christian organization there. The Maliks will soon be leaving Bangkok for a new life in Vancouver.
"Thank God!" Cheryl Malik observes. "I like Thailand. It's a nice place. But it's not easy to stay here for refugees like us."
Before they can leave, Cheryl and Peter may well have to spend some time at the notorious IDC because they have broken Thai law by allowing their visas to expire and staying in the country illegally for years.
She is visibly fearful of the prospect. "I don't know how we'll be able to take it," she laments. "I really don't know."
This article was first published 26.7.2018.