Govt. must demonstrate strong commitment to principles of justice, equality, and religious freedom for all citizens
Messages for Christians are written on the ash-covered wall of the Salvation Army Church in Jaranwala, a Christian settlement in Pakistan's Punjab province, where at least 19 churches were destroyed on Aug. 16 during an anti-Christian violence. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Pakistan’s Interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar was red-faced after he deflected a question about mob attacks on Christians and churches in the eastern Jaranwala city this August. And, that shows a pattern of the political treatment of Christians in this Islamic state.
Kakar was having an interactive session with students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences on Oct. 30, when a student questioned his government’s apathy in taking steps to check the repeated violence against religious minorities in the country.
“You were there in the office, you visited them, and must have given them money but is this a long-term solution? How many more temples will burn in Pakistan? How many Christian churches will you burn for the government to take action,” the student asked.
Kakar’s reply was skimpy but filled with arrogance. “I am happy that you feel so strongly for your minorities. This is a good thing. You look very hopeless regarding the government, but we are not hopeless for you,” Kakar said in reply.
A wave of memes hit the internet showing students grilling Kakar about the worst economic crisis in decades and delayed elections.
Pakistani Christians also used social media to support the student, who spoke for the religious minorities — Hindus and Christians who together make up some five percent of some 230 million people in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s 2.6 million Christians are also filled with similar questions since they have been facing discrimination and violence since the nation was formed in 1947 carving out Muslim-dominated areas of British India.
Although the founding leaders of the country promised equality and freedom for all religions, Islamic laws began to transform it. By 1971, Pakistan was declared an Islamic nation, with politicians aiming to placate Muslim groups rather than protect the rights of religious minorities.
Incidents of violence include kidnap and rape of Christian women to suicide attacks on Christian churches. Christians are also falsely accused of blasphemy and arrested. There were also cases of mob lynching of the blasphemy accused and mops targeting Christian settlements based on blasphemy allegations.
The question Kakar faced pointed to the latest attack on a Christian area in Jaranwala city on Aug. 16. Within a few hours after two Christians were accused of blasphemy through a local mosque’s loudspeakers, at least 22 churches were plundered and 91 Christian homes were set on fire, according to a report of the government in Punjab province.
Days after the incident police arrested some 140 people, some of them members of the Islamic extremist political group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), local reports said.
But months after the large-scale violence, the investigation seems to have hit the wall. The public has no idea how many of them were accused and if police have filed riot charges against them in a court of law. The police have also not made public their reports of the investigation.
The investigation of Jaranwala case shows a pattern followed in the investigation of anti-Christian riots in Pakistan since the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks in New York. Since the U.S. launched the War on Terror, Pakistani Christians have faced increased attacks from Al Qaeda and Taliban militants who slipped in from neighboring Afghanistan.
More Christians have been harassed, attacked, and killed with impunity since 2011 than previously, records show. At least 183 Christians have been killed in terror attacks and other violence on Church and Christians since 2011. But less than 150 Christians were killed in the previous more than six decades.
Over the years, the administrative system in Pakistan has weakened. Political parties and successive governments have failed to take corrective steps to end violence fearing backlash from hard-line Muslim groups and its adverse political fallout.
On the other hand, the administrative system goes out of its way to make hardliners happy. The system is over-enthusiastic in investigating allegations of blasphemy rather than the resultant violence and destruction.
Jaranwala itself is an example. A sense of uncertainty and fear lingered in Jaranwala when I visited its Christian area last month. They are still haunted by the large-scale illegal arrests to investigate the allegation of blasphemy, and most people seemed more terrified of police than the vigilante mob.
The administration does not even hide its reluctance to investigate the crimes against religious minorities. Here is an example. A group of minority leaders sought the permission of the Lahore administration to conduct a public rally for the “protection of the rights of minorities” on Nov. 2. The Administration put two conditions for granting permission – remove the demands of the impartial inquiry of the Jaranwala tragedy, and stop demanding to make public the inquiry reports of all anti-Christian attacks.
Their other demands aimed to prevent future attacks by amending blasphemy laws and allowing non-Muslim members of parliament to become president or prime minister of the country in hopes of creating cultural shifts that promote tolerance and empathy.
But both these demands cannot be met, according to Riaz Ahmed Saeed, assistant professor at the Department of Islamic Thoughts and Culture at the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad.
“While clerics generally condemn the mistreatment of religious minorities, they oppose the idea of a non-Muslim becoming the head of state in the Islamic Republic. Similarly changes to blasphemy laws are a highly sensitive and challenging legal and social issue with implications for the entire society,” he told me.
The story of religious minorities in Pakistan is a sad one and Christians shall keep asking questions addressing the new Hydra heads of discrimination, violence, and persecution.
The government must demonstrate a strong commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and religious freedom for all citizens.
Engaging with civil society organizations, church groups, and the international community can further support efforts to protect religious minorities in Pakistan.
The Christian minority in Pakistan deserves better treatment.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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