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Persecuted by law

Non-Muslims in Pakistan are threatened by both the state and non-state actors.

Non-Muslims in Pakistan are threatened by both

the state and non-state actors.

On Christmas Eve,the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP),Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari,tweeted that he wished a Christian could become the prime minister of Pakistan. Under the Constitution,which was framed by his grandfather,only a Muslim can become prime minister. The occasion demanded that he talk of Christians,but he actually meant any non-Muslims. Pakistan,like most other Muslim states,doesn’t treat its minorities well,at times under law.

Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority in Pakistan,mostly concentrated in the largest province,Punjab. They are particularly targeted by the state under the Blasphemy Law,which the armed non-state actors exploit to furbish their Islamist credentials by killing them while the state winks. In 2012,more than a hundred houses belonging to poor Christians were torched in Lahore by local land-grabbing thugs after accusing them of blasphemy.

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The law says if you insult any prophet mentioned in the Quran you die,but the judges will pretend ignorance when told that the Old Testament apparently insults many prophets like Noah,David and Solomon. The entire Christian community could be condemned to death for believing in the Bible.

In the year that has just passed,Lahore saw the forcible demolition of the walls of Anarkali Church and St Frances School — in the prime minister’s constituency — by the plaza-building mafia linked to the clergy. In September last year,two suicide-bombers killed 78 Christians,mostly women and children,during a church service in Peshawar in the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

When the Taliban declared they hadn’t done the deed,the Peshawar government of Imran Khan’s party,Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf,accepted the denial as if the Taliban — who had earlier killed a Christian federal minister in Islamabad and not owned it — were truthful because of their superior faith. An al-Qaeda assassin later confessed to killing the minister with the help of Punjabi non-state actors.

The state of Pakistan has been eating its non-Muslim children since the early 1990s,when politicians thought they could win more votes by punishing blasphemy. The law gives you death on the basis of innuendo,not solid evidence,which has accounted for no one going to the gallows after conviction: on appeal,the Christian victims are let off by the higher judiciary,but not before eight to 10 years of the victim’s life are lost under this non-bailable law.

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Paul Griffin,in his paper “Finding a Place in the Partition Discourse: The Christians of West Punjab” in the volume The Independence of India and Pakistan: New Approaches and Reflections edited by Ian Talbot (2013),says that Christians are a very old community preceding the Muslims,if you accept that St Thomas,a brother of Christ,came to India and spread the message. He says most of the Christians in Punjab were converts from the untouchable caste called “Chuhras” (sweepers).

Most of them,alas,saw no improvement in their social status and continued in the same profession. Before 1947,the Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha movements sought to reconvert them,which in turn caused the community to decide in favour of living in the new state of Pakistan,which they thought would ease them out of their caste stigma.

The various churches that serve the Christian community in Punjab today have ended up serving the majority Muslims. The ruling Punjabi elite went to school either at St Anthony’s (Roman Catholic) or the Cathedral School (Anglican),while two Protestant-Presbyterian colleges,Kinnaird and Forman Christian,have imparted higher education to them. After an interlude of disastrous nationalisation,these institutions are again owned and funded by charity from Rome,London and the US. Add to them the efficiently run Christian hospitals,and you have the Christian faith serving Muslims more honestly than the madrasa and the mosque.

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Many Muslim Pakistanis who hate Christians should read this in Griffin’s paper: “The elite Christian leadership in the West Punjab was sympathetic to the Muslim League cause and the growing demand for Pakistan. Many Christians attended the Muslim League’s historic 1940 Lahore meeting when the Pakistan Resolution was passed. The Punjabi Christians’ enthusiasm for the Pakistan demand was rooted in the Muslim League’s minority rights discourse.”

D.B.S.P. Singha,the speaker of the Punjab assembly,who represented the Joint Christian Board in 1947,decided that his community would stay in Pakistan. But he was deluded by the Muslim leaders’ rhetoric. The fact is that “while the Muslim League’s liberal leadership saw Pakistan as a home for Indian Muslims,those closer to the ulema sought the creation of an Islamic state which potentially put the Christians in the position of second-class citizens.”

Interestingly,Viceroy Mountbatten was deluded too: “In a private meeting with Jinnah he bizarrely suggested that a cross should appear alongside the crescent on Pakistan’s national flag. The Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had to politely remonstrate that it ‘would be difficult to sell’ and was repugnant to the religious feelings of the Muslims.”

If the state in Pakistan survives,it must call to mind the following articles of the Constitution that give protection to Christians,who form the largest religious minority in the country estimated to be between 2 to 4 million. Article 20: freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions; Article 22: safeguards around education with respect to religious freedom; Article 25: equality of citizenship; Article 36: protection of minorities. But these rights and values enshrined in the Constitution have been undermined by a series of legislations related to the affirmation of the state’s ideological credentials.

The introduction in 1984 of the Qanoon-e-Shahadat or (Law of Evidence) reduces the value of court testimony of a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim male citizen to that of half a Muslim male and,by extension,that of a non-Muslim woman to one-quarter. Similarly,the introduction of a series of amendments to the Blasphemy Laws in the Pakistan Penal Code [Section 295,adding in 1982 Section 295-B,which provides for mandatory life imprisonment for desecrating the Holy Quran,and in 1986 the even harsher Section 295-C,which provides mandatory death in respect of insult of the Holy Prophet,exposes the broadly poverty-stricken Christian community to abuses of the law.

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Non-Muslims in Pakistan are threatened by the state and its non-state actors. Hindus of Sindh and Balochistan are being preyed upon by Islamists seeking heavenly reward through conversions that are patently done under duress. The Supreme Court took notice of one very egregious case in Sindh but pussy-footed out of it when confronted by the power of the clerics abducting Hindu girls later made to confess “honest conversion” to Islam. Most Muslims unfairly agree that conversion away from Islam should be punished with death,but believers of other faiths are welcome to join Islam.

The writer of this article served in a newspaper for a decade (1978-1992) together with a photographer named Chacha Chaudhry,without realising that he was the father of Pakistani “medal of courage” war-hero and ace-pilot Cecil Chaudhry,who ran the St Anthony’s School after retirement from the Pakistan Air Force. Today,after his death,his family is trying to settle abroad to escape the rigours of the Blasphemy Law. But they are too Punjabi to be happy anywhere else.

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Jinnah,who “chose” his birthday to fall on the same day as the birth of Christ,would have a hard time answering the questions the Christians of Pakistan are asking today.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

First published on: 04-01-2014 at 05:03:38 am
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