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Pakistani Prisoners Win Back Jail ‘Church’

by Peter Lamprecht

3/30/07 Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – More than 160 Christian prisoners ended a two-day hunger strike last week after authorities in Pakistan ’s Punjab province permitted them to resume religious services, a non-governmental organization worker said.

Staff members at Rawalpindi ’s Adiala Central Jail agreed on March 22 to reopen a laundry room that had held Christian services until authorities filled it with new inmates earlier this month, Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP) told Compass.

But Adiala Deputy Superintendent Noor ul Haq Hassan denied to Compass that Christians had been refused access to their worship room or that a hunger strike had taken place.

“There was no hunger strike last week, it was a simple misunderstanding,” Hassan told Compass from Rawalpindi yesterday.

Hassan insisted to Compass that no prisoners had been housed in the prayer room. He said that an overflow of inmates had been kept in the room’s “vicinity,” creating the misunderstanding that the Christians would not be allowed to go there for prayer.

The hunger strike was reported by the English-language Daily Times on March 22.

According to Johnson, Christian inmates had not been able to use the prayer room for more than a week when they began their hunger strike on March 21. He said jail official Saifullah Gondal had filled the prayer room with an overload of prisoners after Pakistan ’s president sparked protests when he sacked a Supreme Court chief justice on March 9.

“Gondal is a prejudiced person, and he wanted to send a message to the Christians that this was not their church or chapel, just a laundry hall,” said Johnson, whose SLMP works with Christian prisoners throughout Punjab .

Though denying that any problems had occurred at his jail, Hassan told Compass that officials had the legal right to use a jail mosque or church to detain prisoners during an emergency.

Overcrowding remains one of the biggest problems at Adiala Central Jail, where 5,343 prisoners are packed into space meant for 1,996 people, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in its most recent annual report. According to Johnson, only 160 detainees are Christian.

Jail staff members yielded to Christian inmates’ demands after several Christian and minority rights groups publicized the hunger strike with a protest in front of the Lahore press club on March 22, Johnson said.

“We showed hand cards and banners and shouted slogans: ‘Please allow the Christian prisoners to have religious freedom,’” Johnson said. “We also called for the jail superintendent to be suspended.”

Christian inmates told their families that authorities apologized later that evening, saying that because of the protest in Lahore , the inspector general and home secretary were pushing them to resolve the issue quickly, Johnson said.

Led by prisoner Safdar Chaudry and two others identified only as Babar and Zaheer, 160 Christians ended their protest fast with a church service and a meal at 11 p.m. on March 22, said Johnson, who spoke with family members of the protestors.

According to Johnson, the prisoners agreed to break their fast on the conditions that they be allowed to resume use of the church, and that jail staff open the kitchen and cook them a fresh meal.

“Jail Superintendent Mirza Shahid Saleem Baig told them, ‘If you move an application for a place for a church building, I will give you a plot of land to build on,’” Johnson told Compass. “‘Right now you are meeting in a laundry hall, and if a new superintendent comes after I leave, he may give you the same problem.’”

But Deputy Superintendent Hassan told Compass, “Every citizen of Pakistan has his right to go for his own prayers. This is religious freedom.”

When asked why there were several mosques built in Adiala Jail but no churches, Hassan insisted that the jail did have a church. He later admitted that the jail did not have a church building, only a laundry hall converted into a prayer room for Christian inmates.

“I am not in a position to allow for the construction of a church, it is a matter for the government,” Hassan said.

Of 31 jails in the Punjab province, Johnson said that only one, Kot Lakhpat Central Jail in Lahore , has a small chapel built on its grounds. Adiala Central Jail has a mosque and several masjids (Muslim prayer rooms).

Last fall the Punjab inspector general of prisons rejected an application from the SLMP to construct Christian prayer rooms in each of the province’s prisons.

In a November 18 letter, he stated that, “The place for prayer to [sic] Christian prisoners in each jail is already give to them,” and claimed that new rooms for Christian prisoners could not be built due to “religious problems.”

“In a number of countries, prison staff remain insensitive to the spiritual needs of prisoners,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Asma Jahangir said in a speech in Geneva this week.

Jahangir, a Pakistani citizen, mentioned in her March 27 speech before the U.N. Human Rights Council that, “certain religious practices are disallowed in detention centers.” She called on governments to use jail manuals to sensitize their jail staff to respect religious rights.