Pakistan’s Religious Minorities Suffer Intense Persecution With Little Hope for Change
Pakistan continues to rank among the world’s more religiously intolerance countries. Religiously motivated violence, often directed against Pakistan’s religious minorities, have become almost common occurrences. Terrorist attacks on places of worship, sectarian mob violence, false blasphemy accusations, and widespread discrimination are just a few of the issues faced by Pakistan’s Christians and other religious minorities on a daily basis. What is the answer to all of this suffering? How can Pakistan be convinced that it needs to change and start protecting its religious minorities?
6/11/2015 Pakistan (Foreign Policy) – On Sunday morning, March 15th, 22-year-old Akash Bashir volunteered to guard the gates outside of St. John’s Catholic Church in Lahore, Pakistan. As the service drew to a close, an armed gunman strapped with explosives sprinted towards the entrance, firing at the gate. Bashir and a fellow security volunteer managed to knock the attacker over. When the man tried to get up, Bashir tackled him, hugging him tightly as he set off his explosives a few moments later. Fifteen were killed, including Bashir, in twin suicide bombings that day, but witnesses said if not for Bashir’s bravery, the numbers would have been far worse.
The story of Bashir’s heroism has, for the most part, never made it out of Pakistan. What has trickled into the West’s consciousness are only bits and pieces of the deadly tales of Pakistan’s religious minorities: 93 Ahmadi worshipers killed in 2010; 80 Christians slaughtered at the All Saints Church in 2013; 60 Shiite Muslims murdered at a mosque in Sindh in January; 43 Ismaili’s gunned down inside a bus last month. The stories are horrific, but they hardly begin to convey the pervasive sense of dread that the nearly 40 million members of Pakistan’s religious minority communities live with on a daily basis.
The problem has become so serious that religious minorities are fleeing the country in droves. As many as 10,000 Pakistani Christians (but official United Nations’ figures say 4,000) are now believed to be living “under the radar” in Thailand, fending off arrest by Thai police for illegal entry as they cling to the hope of making it through the grueling U.N. refugee resettlement process. International Christian Concern’s offices — an NGO that assists Christians who have been the victims of religious persecution — routinely get calls from Pakistanis around the globe pleading for help as they try to find any possible avenue of escape from an endless cycle of violence and discrimination.
The tragedy in all of this is not simply the scale of human suffering, but the one-sided response of the Pakistani government. In 2013, thousands of enraged Sunni Muslim’s rampaged through the Christian neighborhood of Joseph Colony in Lahore, torching over 100 homes after a Christian man was accused of committing “blasphemy” against Islam. In the two years since, not a single individual from the mob has been convicted. Meanwhile the Christian accused of blasphemy, Sawan Masih, was arrested and sentenced to death, a penalty that is mandatory by order of the Federal Shariat Court. This example is consistent with a long-running pattern of prosecuting religious minorities while allowing those who persecute them to escape justice.
Sawan Masih’s case is also an example of another seemingly intractable issue — Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. Strengthened in the early 1980s under the rule of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, thousands have since been arrested and imprisoned under the draconian legislation, often used as an excuse to settle personal scores or whip up religious fervor against marginalized minorities. There are currently 14 people on death row for blasphemy, including at least four Christians, while another 19 people are serving life sentences. Those who are actually arrested for blasphemy are often the lucky ones. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 60 individuals have been murdered, often by mob violence, since 1990 before they could even be convicted of this so-called “crime.” In 2014, a young Christian couple pregnant with their fifth child was burned alive in a brick kiln by an enraged mob over a blasphemy accusation.