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The church of changing Pakistan

Mob attacks on Christian churches have been decreasing despite the bleak picture painted by international media

The church of changing Pakistan

Newly appointed Cardinal Joseph Coutts gestures as he attends the courtesy visit of relatives following a consistory for the creation of new cardinals in the Apostolic Palace at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on June 28. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP)

Published: July 06, 2018 05:45 AM GMT

The famous ancient Greek thinker Aristotle said there were only two forms of government — democracy and oligarchy.

For he considered aristocracies to be in the same category as oligarchies in that they are both based on "rule of a few."

His ideas are more relevant than ever for present-day Pakistan as it braces for much anticipated general elections on July 25.

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For the first time in its history, the country saw a second consecutive parliament complete its five-year term.

While many may argue over how much good this decade of democracy has achieved, or failed to achieve, it certainly brought more good than bad for Pakistan's two million Christians.

And here begins my first argument: Things in Pakistan are not as negative as they are daily portrayed to be by international media outlets.

"Journalists abroad ask me if churches still function in the country," newly appointed Cardinal Joseph Coutts told me.

The atmosphere generated by militant violence of the Islamic State terror outfit does create difficulties for non-Muslims. But the situation in regard to religious freedom in the country has other aspects.

The abuse of blasphemy laws and rising religious intolerance in Pakistan are among the chief concerns of international human rights groups. The U.S. State Department named Pakistan as the first and only country on its Special Watch List in December 2017.

However, there were no media reports about a decrease in mob attacks on churches, a trend which started in 1997 after Muslim mobs attacked Shanti Nagar, a village in Punjab, following alleged desecration of a Quran.

The last major attack on a Christian settlement was reported in 2013 when a mob looted and destroyed 116 houses and two churches of the Joseph Colony in Lahore.

Yes, there were minor attacks in Punjab villages but there was no major damage to church buildings and no killing or injuring of worshipers. In fact, all churches now have a team of security volunteers armed with licensed weapons.

It’s been years since I heard of a nun or a priest being attacked in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The situation is quite different in neighboring countries. Three Catholic priests have been shot dead in Asia's most populous Catholic nation, the Philippines, since December 2017. Hindu activists attacked a Catholic mission hospital and manhandled staff, including nuns, in central India this March. Similarly, in Bangladesh, robbers attacked two missionary nuns on Feb. 26.

That doesn’t mean Christians are all safe and sound in Pakistan. Suicide bombers have taken the place of arsonists. Churches in different provinces have been attacked by terrorists since 2013 and security risks loom as election campaigning gets underway.

Religiously charged Muslim mobs continue to focus on soft targets such as alleged blasphemers. But even here the number of non-Muslim victims is far less than the number of victimized Muslims.

According to the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) in Pakistan, between 1987 and 2015 religious offences were alleged against 633 mainstream Muslims, 494 members of the Ahmadi Islamic sect and 187 Christians as well as 21 Hindus.

A major story this year from Quetta, the capital of insurgency-hit Balochistan province, was about the targeted killing of six Christians. However, members of the Hazara ethnic minority have long faced genocidal persecution.

One of the biggest threats to democracy and the church is the new ultra-religious Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLY) party, which paralyzed the capital city of Islamabad for 20 days during anti-government sit-ins late in 2017.

Pakistan Rangers Punjab director-general Maj. Gen. Azhar Naveed later handed bus fare money to detainees who were being released.

And the influence of these Islamists led to hate speeches against the persecuted Ahmadi community. TLY activists also clashed with members of the Christian community in Faisalabad city.

Army aid to Islamists reminded me of former military ruler Zia-ul-Haq, who started a program of Islamization in the 1980s.  It would not be wrong to blame the school syllabus of that era for producing the present extremist mindset.  


Pro-minority legislation

The military ruled Pakistan for roughly half its history. It still operates largely with impunity and any criticism of the most powerful institution in Pakistan is seen as taboo.

But I give heartfelt thanks to the military for finally supporting elected governments.

These governments may not be perfect, but at least they gave us a 5 percent employment quota for ethnic minorities in federal jobs, educational institutions and government schemes.

This March, Pakistan became the first country in the word to introduce specific legislation for the registration of Sikh marriages. a move heartily welcomed by Sikhs.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave a hallmark judgment ordering the federal government to create a national council to oversee the rights of minorities and provincial governments.

The court directed the government to create task forces to counter religious tolerance, protect places of worship and crack down on hate speech. Several Christian human rights organizations have since struggled to achieve compliance.

Thankfully, the implementation bench resumed on June 11 and chief secretaries of all provinces, as well as secretaries of relevant ministries, were ordered to present themselves for further hearings.

Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of Pakistan's Centre for Social Justice, said in a media statement that it was time to make religious discrimination and intolerance things of the past.

One of my favorite columnists compares democracy to a newly installed tap. The sludge that initially flowed from it was thankfully followed by fresh, clean water.

My prayers and best wishes to the next government in improving efforts to make our country a safe place for our children. Amen.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator in Lahore.


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