Christians stage a protest in front of the Karachi Press Club following twin blasts at Catholic churches in Lahore in March this year. (ucanews.com file photo)
Sarfraz Masih says he tried his best to help his jailed brother, Sajjad, after he fell foul of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Sajjad, from Pakpattan in Punjab province, was handed a life term in July 2013 for sending a blasphemous text message in 2011 to several Muslim clerics, a charge his brother strongly denies.
"All my efforts to prove his innocence have so far been in vain and I have become a target for fanatics," said Sarfraz, a Christian.
"An appeal is now pending in the Lahore High Court. But it may take years for the hearing to begin," he said.
"I have resisted four years of intimidation, including death threats, while pursuing my brother’s case vigorously. But I can’t take it anymore. Our family has decided to go to Sri Lanka and apply for asylum," Sarfraz said.
Rise in asylum seeking
Not swayed by negative reports of hardship befalling asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries, Sarfraz is prepared to take the gamble.
"We are well aware of the risks involved and pray to Jesus that things will be different for us in Sri Lanka," he said.
Christian religious and political leaders say that some 30,000 people have applied for asylum or refugee status in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other countries in recent years.
In Karachi, Pastor Rafaqat Sadiq of The United Presbyterian Church of Pakistan said that the majority of Christians in Dastagir, Essa Nagri, Azam Basti and Mahmoodabad districts have moved to Thailand, where they are living a miserable life because they don't have work permits.
"Owing to poverty and lack of resources, some young girls are forced into prostitution to make a living. But they are still clinging to the hope that they will be granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees," the pastor said.
Even Christian leaders leave Pakistan as a result of increasing persecution and threats, says Michael Javed, a Christian and former lawmaker.
Pakistani Christians pray at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore on March 22 during a service for victims of recent church attacks. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
Violence and discrimination
"Saleem Khokhar, who was president of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Sindh province, was given asylum in the United States after surviving a gun attack in 2013," Javed said.
The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance is a group that opposes violence and discrimination against minority groups.
"I know many others who have either left or are giving it serious consideration," Javed said.
He pointed to events that followed twin bomb attacks at two Catholic churches in Lahore in March this year.
At least 15 people were killed and dozens more were wounded in the blasts in the Youhanabad district of the city. In the aftermath, angry Christians lynched two suspected bombers who later turned out to be innocent victims.
This set off a wave of anti-Christian feeling, Javed said.
Many Muslims observed an undeclared social boycott of Christians as a result, he added.
"This unfortunate incident had a devastating impact on the Christian community. Communal tensions boiled over for many days. Christians were scared of possible revenge attacks, prompting many to head abroad and seek asylum immediately," Javed said.
"Many Christians found themselves being refused food and drink in grocery stores owned by Muslims," he said.
Things have returned to normal but the fear remains high amongst the Christian community, Javed said.
Christians risk going abroad for a better life
Kashif A. Javed, a diocesan coordinator for the National Commission for Justice and Peace of Pakistan's bishops' conference, says the Church doesn’t support what he called this "hasty and risky" migration of Christians.
"We extend every possible legal and financial assistance to victims of persecution instead of sending them abroad," he said.
There are many Christians willing to risk going abroad for a better life, however further difficulties such as financial hardship and official red tape often await them and hundreds of asylum seekers are believed to have returned voluntarily, or are detained and deported back to Pakistan.
Upon reaching Thailand for example, Christians file an asylum application with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and then wait several years for interviews. After the interview, the U.N. decides whether applicants can qualify for asylum in another country or not.
Nadeem John, 38, left Karachi and went to Thailand in March last year with his wife and two children. John, who once owned a shop and earned a decent living, sacrificed all to reach Thailand, where things were far from easy.
His interview was set for 2019.
"For almost a year, I remained jobless and spent all the money I brought from Pakistan by selling my shop and other belongings. Eventually, we decided to return to Karachi and re-establish my business," he said.
"It’s kind of a fresh start for me in Karachi as well."