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Pakistani Christians, from freedom to persecution

ICC Note

When Pakistan was formed in 1947, its founder fathers promised equality for all its citizens. But today, Christians and other minorities face institutionalized discrimination, violence and other forms of persecution.

By Fareed Khan

10/29/2009 Pakistan (AsiaNews) Pakistan is a plural society with a number of religious, sectarian and ethno-linguistic groups. It is nation of about162 million people where Muslims represent more than 90 per cent of the total, divided doctri

As a religious minority Christians face religious, social, constitutional, economic and educational discrimination. In addition to Christians, non-Muslim Pakistanis include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Kalasha, Parsees and Sikhs.

Pakistan ’s Founding Fathers envisaged a progressive, democratic and tolerant society that retained its Muslim character whilst giving equal rights to its non-Muslim citizens.

In his address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State. [. . .] We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not so in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

This speech sums up Jinnah’s views on the role of religion and the state; it is considered by many as the founding charter of Pakistan .

Islamisation of the country

However, in the subsequent decades, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pakistani state, rather than guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities to all its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, began instead to encourage extremist forces. This has allowed Islamist forces in Pakistan to rewrite South Asian history to suit their own religious biases. Consequently, today most Pakistani Muslims know nothing of the significant contributions made by minorities to the creation and the defence of Pakistan . What’s more, academics and journalists have largely failed to publicise this vital information.

The constitutions of Pakistan

In addition to the interim legislation of 1947 and the Objectives Resolution of 1949, Pakistan has had four Constitutions since its independence.

In 1973, then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had the National Assembly adopt a new constitution that introduced a parliamentary form of government. To this day, this charter remains the only consensus-based constitution the country has ever known. However, after coming to power General Zia-ul-Haq made radical amendments to the constitution, affecting the civil rights of all Pakistanis, but especially non-Muslims.

Constitutional discrimination

The Constitution of Pakistan segregates its citizens on the basis of religion and provides preferential treatment to Muslims. For example, Article 2 of the Constitution declares Islam as “the State religion of Pakistan” and recognises the Holy Qur‘an and the Sunnah as “the supreme law and source of guidance for legislation to be administered through laws enacted by the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies, and for policy making by the Government”. Similarly, Article 41(2) says that only a Muslim can become president. Last but not least, Article 260 recognises two distinct categories of people, “Muslim” and “Non-Muslim,” thereby facilitating and encouraging discrimination on the basis of religion.

Blasphemy laws

Historically, the most far-reaching steps towards Islamisation were taken during President Zia-ul-Haq administration (1977 to 1988). Under his rule, a number of Islamic laws were introduced and a judicial body was set up to review all existing laws as to their agreement with Islamic principles. Laws and orders passed during the martial law years under President Zia-ul-Haq, including those governing religious offences, were placed outside the scope of judicial review by the Eighth Constitutional Amendment of 1985.

The blasphemy provisions of the Penal Code have been widely abused and misused to target minorities and sometimes settle personal scores among the Muslims. Even after acquittal by the courts, those who had to face blasphemy charges still live in fear.

Other forms of discrimination against Christians

The widespread economic, social, legal and cultural discrimination against Christians is the main issue that needs to be addressed in Pakistan .

Land and properties, including places of worship, owned by Christians have been forcibly seized. Minorities have been denied equal treatment and protection by law enforcement personnel.

Kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of Christian and Hindu girls is a common practice. Should a Muslim man be arrested for such a crime, all he has to do is produce a certificate issued by any Muslim seminary claiming that the kidnapped girls have voluntarily adopted Islam and married the accused. The courts generally do not consider the fact that most of the girls are under age and simply accept the validity of the certificate of conversion without making any additional inquiry.

According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights organisation of the Catholic Church of Pakistan, at least 964 persons have been accused on the basis of these laws between 1986 and August 2009. They include 479 Muslims, 119 Christians, 340 Ahmadis, 14 Hindus and 10 of unknown religion.

Angry mobs or individuals were responsible for 32 extrajudicial killings.

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