Pakistan Christian Village Sees Rising Tensions

Pakistan Christian Village Sees Rising Tensions

ICC Note

“My best friend Aamir is Muslim. We studied and played together, he even goes with me to the church. But now we are scared of this increasing tension. It is killing both communities.”

03/12/2011 Pakistan (AFP)-In the Pakistani Christian hamlet that buried its most famous resident last week — the assassinated minister for minorities — locals say religious tolerance is giving way to rising tensions.

Khushpur village has been a base for the struggle against religious suppression for more than a century and remains a rare example of Muslims and Christians in rural Pakistan living harmoniously alongside one another.

But since the killings this year of two senior politicians who spoke out against strict Islamic blasphemy laws, the tiny Christian community that forms part of the country’s three percent non-Muslim population is feeling increasingly insecure.

“My best friend Aamir is Muslim. We studied and played together, he even goes with me to the church. But now we are scared of this increasing tension. It is killing both communities,” said 22-year-old villager Shahid Samuel.

Minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, an outspoken campaigner against Pakistan’s Islamic blasphemy laws that carry the death penalty, was killed by Taliban militants as he left his family home in Islamabad last week.

Controversy over the blasphemy law, which punishes inflammatory comments on the Prophet Muhammad, flared late last year over the case of a poor Punjabi Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was sentenced to death over the charge.

Bibi’s defenders say that like many other victims of the law, she was wrongly prosecuted because of a petty village dispute.

Bhatti defended Bibi, just like Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer who was assassinated for the same reason in January by one of his own bodyguards.

Taseer’s killer has since been feted by legions of fans — their loud defence of the blasphemy law underscoring rising religious feeling across the country.

“This is personal enmity which is being settled under the blasphemy law and it is increasing now,” said 65-year-old villager Emmanuel, wearing a blue turban and holding a hookah waterpipe.

“We Christians and Muslims never thought in the past that these things would create distance between us. This has really increased tension among the communities which is not good for the country and our society.”

Muhammad Ghufran Arshad, a Muslim man from Khushpur who dug the graves for Bhatti and the rest of his family, said that until the minister’s death he had never heard of Bibi.

“We are living together in this village since childhood. We respect them and help them in all affairs of life,” he said.

Founded during British rule in 1903 by a Roman Catholic priest, the village has long fought for religious freedoms.

Unlike most Christian enclaves in the central Punjab region, Khushpur’s community is relatively wealthy and highly educated, producing doctors, engineers and teachers, as well as its minority rights advocates.

Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph shot himself in 1998 in protest against the blasphemy laws and is also buried here, as is Father George Ibrahim, who fought for a Christian school and was killed in 2003.

“After the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christians are very sad and angry, it has hurt their hearts and they are now feeling unsafe in this country,” said local Jacob Paul.

“They feel that they will be suppressed here forever. It is a common thought over here that as long as this blasphemy law exists, their lives are not out of danger and the fuelled tensions can grip them at any time

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