For many Christians in Pakistan, rising religious intolerance and violence is beginning to force them to leave the country. According to reports, more than 100,000 have fled Pakistan to other Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines. With so many Christians fleeing the country in search of security and freedom, what does this mean for Christianity as a whole in Pakistan? Please pray for Pakistani Christians both in Pakistan and those who have fled in search of freedom and security.
7/14/2015 Pakistan (UPI) – As violence worsens for Pakistan’s Christians, more than 100,000 of them have fled to U.N. refugee camps in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines in the past several years, Lahore Bishop Alexander John Malik told News Lens Pakistan.
Pakistani Christians face discrimination and persecution by the state and fellow citizens. They are routinely accused of blasphemy and attacked or jailed. Their homes and churches are burned down. Christian girls are kidnapped and compelled to convert to Islam, then forcibly married.
Christians, along with other religious minorities, find it nearly impossible to get justice from the state when they are harassed or discriminated against, Malik said.
It has not proved difficult for those with means to make their way to other Asian countries. Speaking in Urdu, the bishop added, “People get entry visas at the airports of Sri Lanka and Philippines. To acquire Thai and Malaysian visas isn’t difficult. Moreover, traveling is also not very expensive.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the number of Pakistani asylum seekers arriving in Sri Lanka had jumped to over 1,400, up from 102 in 2012. Another 8,000 Pakistani refugees and asylum seekers — those without official refugee status — were in Thailand. These groups are mostly made up of Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims, a minority sect within Islam.
Zeshan Pervaiz and his family are living in a UNHCR refugee camp in Bangkok. Originally from Gojra in Punjab, they left Pakistan three years ago after the Gojra Riots of 2009. In those attacks, dozens of homes and a church in a Christian community were set on fire after two men were accused of desecrating the Koran. Eight people died in the fires.
“I never thought of leaving my country before Gojra killings. Now, I am in Thailand with my family to seek asylum in any other country with a protected environment,” Pervaiz told News Lens Pakistan in a phone interview.
Younis Patras, 35, is trying to go abroad with his wife, two daughters and parents. He is worried about his family’s future.
“I am trying to sell my parents’ house in Lahore worth $15,000. All other documents are complete to seek refuge in Sri Lanka because we don’t want to stay here anymore,” he said.
Families like Patras’s are not uncommon. Haroon Sulman is a Lahore-based lawyer helping Christians sell their property in preparation for filing asylum cases.
“Almost 100 families from cities like Gojra, Lahore and Kasur have used my services. They seemed to be in a hurry to leave and did not show reservations, even if they got a low price for their properties,” he said, adding, “Many are now living in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Philippines.”
Violence against religious minorities rose in the 1980s under military dictator Gen. Zia Ul Haq, said Peter Jacob, national secretary of the Multan-based National Commission for Justice and Peace. In an interview with News Lens Pakistan, Jacob said that under Zia’s tenure, Pakistan’s penal code was amended to include the death penalty for blasphemy.
“Gen. Zia nourished religious bigotry, discrimination toward other sects and religions. Since 1987, 1,300 people have been charged with blasphemy, and 182 Christians have been reported killed,” Jacob said.
Christians are the third-largest faith community in Pakistan, after Muslims and Hindus, and the second-largest in Punjab province after Muslims, according to Lahore-based Kashif Nawab, former U.N. observer in Pakistan for minorities.
“There are more than 6 million Christians in Pakistan. Most of them have been extremely vulnerable to allegations of blasphemy. Now, people of this community are seeking sanctuary in U.N. refugee camps after selling their possessions for whatever they can get to leave as soon as possible,” Nawab said.
Muslim religious leaders express little concern about the flight of Pakistan’s Christians.