John Masih was singing Christmas carols with his small gospel band of other teenagers at his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore when two Muslim men showed up at the door. They asked to be let in so that they could listen to the songs.
"I knew when they came to my home that there was going to be trouble," Masih (not his real name) recounts of the incident that took place one wintry afternoon in December 2013.
One of the men was a mujtahid, an interpreter of Islamic scriptures, and he was especially adamant.
Masih, a fresh-faced, good-natured man now in his mid-20s, had reason to be wary.
Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation, has draconian laws against blasphemy, a crime that citizens regularly invoke against others, especially religious minorities, to settle scores. Christians and Ahmadis (members of a breakaway Muslim sect) who are accused of insulting Islam or Muslims face the prospect of being jailed or executed.
They may also be lynched by angry mobs. In 2014, a Christian couple who worked as bonded laborers at a brick kiln in Punjab province were set upon by hundreds of Muslim villagers who proceeded to burn the husband and his pregnant wife alive for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Quran. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was Pakistan's minister of minority affairs, was assassinated in Islamabad by Islamic radicals for criticizing the country's blasphemy laws.
"Look, Pakistan is basically a failed state and it's basically ungovernable," says a veteran Bangkok-based Australian human rights advocate with more than three decades of experience in the region.
"All manner of Islamic fundamentalist groups and extremists operate through the country," adds the expert, who asked to remain unnamed. "They are constantly harassing Christians all over the place, protected by the dreaded blasphemy laws."
And it isn't just religious extremists who abuse those laws. "Muslim citizens, seeking some form of professional or financial advancement, could also try to get rid of Christian competitors by faking a blasphemy accusation, which then puts the lives of the accused at risk," he says.
Christians in Pakistan, Masih attests, feel marginalized and fear being targeted. "In Pakistan when Muslims insult us and call us 'dirty Chura,' we stay silent," he says, referring to a pejorative word Pakistani Muslims use to insult Christians. "Otherwise, something bad can happen. They just need an excuse to attack us and the police won't help us."
Christians make up around 2 percent of Pakistan's population of 200 million. Most languish at the bottom of the social ladder. Largely uneducated, they work as street sweepers, trash collectors, farmhands and other menial laborers.
Yet even educated Christians might find it hard to get better-paying jobs because of pervasive religious discrimination. "My brother is a mechanical engineer and he drives a rickshaw," Masih explains, bursting into a chuckle at the absurdity of it.
After some heated back-and-forth outside his home that December evening in 2013, the two Muslim men left. But that wasn't the end of it.
A few days later, as Masih and fiancee Mary were on their way home on his motorbike, a group of men waylaid the couple and dragged them to an empty lot, where they began tormenting them. The men proceeded to slap and punch Masih. They grabbed Mary by the hair, throwing her to the ground. Some of them threatened to rape her.
"I thought this was going to be my last day on this earth," recalls Mary, a petite, amiable woman who, like her husband, attended a Catholic school in Lahore and speaks fluent English. "I could see John was dazed from all the beating. I was distraught."
The men were accusing Masih of trying to convert Muslim youth to Christianity through proselytizing. "One of them put a gun to my head," he says. "They spat in my face. They told me, 'You insulted Islam. We'll burn you.'"
The men gave the couple an ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.
When Masih refused, one of them grabbed a sharpened stick from a burning fire and pressed it deep into the bridge of Masih's feet. First the right foot, then the left.
"I was in a lot of pain," he remembers, showing off large scars on his sandaled feet. "I couldn't walk for a month after that."
To save their lives, the couple agreed to recite the shahada, a short Islamic testimony of faith that when recited in front of believing witnesses is supposed to make someone automatically a Muslim. The men recorded the Christian couple's forced "conversion" on their mobile phones and let them leave.
"We did it to stop them torturing us," Mary says, almost apologetically.
Distraught and in fear of their lives, the couple spent the next few weeks in hiding. They didn't return home, deeming it safer to stay with relatives, moving from safe house to safe house like fugitives on the lam. They rarely ventured outdoors and avoided contact with anyone outside a small circle of trusted friends and relations.
"If they [their Muslim tormentors] found out we remained Christians, they might kill us [for betraying Islam]," says Mary, who was a budding fashion designer and taught biology to children in Pakistan. "The police didn't help us. The government didn't help us. Only God helped us."
That help, they believe, came in the form of tourist visas to Thailand. The couple flew to Bangkok in January 2014, planning never to return to Pakistan. They had US$500 in their pockets — hard-earned savings their relatives could spare.
A happy ending then? Not just yet.
For the past four and a half years, the Masihs have been staying illegally in Thailand. Their visas and even their passports expired long ago. Their son Shazee, who was born in Bangkok in 2014, is now a stateless child lacking any citizenship.
The boy, a quick-witted, bashful little fellow, says he wants to go to school. He can't do that, though, because he has no identification papers. He would also love to go to the beach. He can't do that either because his parents can't afford holidays and they don't want to risk taking an hour-long bus ride to the seaside for fear of encountering police checkpoints.
John Masih and wife Mary hold hands at a market in Bangkok. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
Although Thailand is welcoming to tourists and migrant workers, the country rarely grants refugee status or citizenship to foreign nationals. Illegal migrants remain at the mercy of the authorities and may face deportation at short notice.
The Masihs spend almost all their time inside their small unfurnished room as they do their best to stay out of sight and avoid drawing attention to themselves.
They sleep on a mattress laid on the floor, try to cool themselves in the tropical heat with a small electric fan, and cook their meals on a portable gas stove. Their monthly rent of around US$130 for a barebones unit in a nondescript apartment building comes courtesy of a Bangkok-based Catholic organization.
The couple moved there after the building where they had stayed with scores of other asylum seekers was raided by police as part of periodic crackdowns on illegal immigrants in Thailand.
"We were hiding in Pakistan, now we are hiding in Thailand," Mary says. "We like it here but every time we go outdoors we are afraid," she adds. "We are always worried we will be caught by police and deported back to Pakistan."
Masih has been unemployed for months. He was employed illegally by an Indian mechanical engineer in a workshop until he lost half of his right ring finger in an accident while operating some machinery without proper safety gear. "He took me to a hospital and ran away, leaving me there with 50 baht (less than $2) in my pocket," Masih recalls with a laugh.
Despite their travails, both he and his wife remain good-humored and well adjusted. They refuse to wallow in self-pity, although they subsist on meager monthly allowances from local Catholic organizations while they continue waiting for a chance to seek asylum in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or another country willing to accept them as refugees.
But the Bangkok office of the U.N. refugee agency, to which the couple turned for refugee status repeatedly, has refused to grant them that status. "A U.N. official told me: 'Your case is not strong. Maybe you tell a lie. You can go back to Pakistan. It's safe there,'" Masih says, showing off a brief letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) informing him that he "cannot be recognized as a refugee" under the organization's mandate.
"The U.N. leaves me dumbfounded," the Australian human rights advocate fumes. "Some of the Pakistani refugees I'm dealing with have documentary evidence of fatwas against them [issued by Muslim clerics based on trumped-up charges of blasphemy]. Their life would be in danger if they returned to Pakistan. Yet that's not taken into account by the UNHCR."
According to estimates, some 2,500 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers remain in legal limbo as illegal aliens in Thailand. "Pakistani Christians are in a precarious situation in Thailand," the rights advocate observes. "They have no legal standing as refugees and they are all visa over-stayers."
These asylum seekers are facing daily uncertainty while they live on handouts from Catholic NGOs and continue to pine for new homes elsewhere.
"For John and me, it's not about moving to Canada or Australia or New Zealand," Mary stresses. "We would be happy to stay here in Thailand. We just want to have a normal life. That's all we want."