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Pakistan’s Christians, accounting for 1.59 per cent of the population according to the last census conducted in 1998, are primarily located in Punjab province, including the neighbourhood of Youhanabad in Lahore, as well as Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The community has long been the target of violence and discrimination. However, in recent years sectarian violence in the country has intensified, bringing with it new threats in the form of targeted terrorist attacks.
One of the worst incidents for the community took place in Lahore on 27 March 2016 when Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), bombed Gulshan-i-Iqbal park and killed more than 70 people, mostly women and children. Although the majority of the victims were Muslims, the intended target were the many low-income Christian families who had gathered in the park that day to celebrate Easter. This was the third major terrorist incident specifically targeting Christians. The first, a twin suicide bombing in September 2013 at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, a city in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, left more than 100 dead and many others injured. In March 2015, the simultaneous targeting of two churches in Lahore by Taliban suicide bombers resulted in at least 15 casualties.
However, while these attacks have drawn considerable attention to the plight of Pakistan’s Christians, they are only part of the picture of everyday violence and persecution the community experiences, including the constant threat of blasphemy allegations. Neighbourhoods have been attacked, homes set ablaze and individuals burnt alive as a result of false accusations. One of the worst cases involved the killing of a Christian couple, Shama and Shehzad, in November 2014 in the town of Kot Radha Krishna by a mob. The couple, who were parents to three young children with the eldest child aged six at the time, were beaten unconscious and thrown into an open furnace shaft after rumours circulated that they had desecrated a Qur’an.
Alongside frequent extra-judicial killings, encouraged in part by the failure of authorities to adequately protect communities from attack, many Christians have also been prosecuted under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws – with penalties of life imprisonment and even death for those accused of certain offences. While Muslims have also faced blasphemy charges, the proportion of Christians and other religious minorities convicted is especially high. One of the most publicized blasphemy cases involves a Christian, Asia Bibi, who is the only woman ever to have been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Though her execution has been suspended, she has been in prison in solitary confinement since 2009 after being sentenced in a trial that was widely condemned by human rights organizations.
In blasphemy cases such as Bibi’s, the element of fear is so substantial that neither the laws nor the cases can be publicly debated. Often the authorities, including the police and judiciary, are complicit in the persecution or support the verdict in the interests of self-preservation. Government officials who have publicly defended those accused of blasphemy, on the other hand, such as former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, have been assassinated.
Besides the constant threat of violence, Christians also experience many forms of everyday discrimination in areas such as employment, where they are typically relegated to the most menial tasks, such as cleaning and garbage collection. At the institutional level, job quotas for religious minorities in the public sector remain largely unfilled. In statistics shared in Pakistan’s parliament last year, it was revealed that more than 70 per cent of government jobs earmarked for non-Muslims were vacant. Those government jobs filled by minorities are largely designated for sanitary workers, so they do not present a substantial challenge regarding the nature of work available to the Christian community and others.
Christian women, in particular, face multiple forms of discrimination and so are vulnerable to a range of abuses, including forced conversion, forced marriage and sexual violence. Until recently, Christians in Pakistan were not by law afforded the right to divorce. Amended in 1981, the Christian Divorce Act only allowed a man to separate from his wife if there were charges of adultery, making divorce proceedings a humiliating process for many. This law led to many Christian women being forced to convert to Islam or be married according to Islamic tradition in order to obtain a right to divorce. The Christian divorce law was finally changed in May 2016, allowing couples to obtain a divorce without recrimination.
The everyday reality for Christians in Pakistan, then, encompasses a broad range of rights violations, from social exclusion and discrimination to the destruction of property and physical violence. The following section outlines a variety of the incidents reported to Minority Rights Group International (MRG) with the support of our local partner Human Friends Organization (HFO) between August 2015 and May 2016 by local sources documenting rights violations, primarily in Punjab. In creating a list of these incidents – to be updated intermittently – the aim is to illustrate the many difficulties confronting the country’s Christian population. The list is far from exhaustive, however, as many incidents of violence and discrimination still go unreported – a reflection of the continued invisibility of their victims.
Photo: Church in Lahore, Punjab documented by local rapporteurs after a reported arson attack on 6 January 2016.