Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Linda Burkle, PhD

In its most recent review of religious persecution, Open Doors World Watch List ranked Pakistan as the fifth worst violator of religious freedom out of the top fifty countries included in the analysis. [1] In addition, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has again designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” in its most recent annual report. The Commission’s recommendations include imposing sanctions and increasing security for at-risk religious communities.[2] Human Rights Watch states, “Arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies continue with impunity. Blasphemy-related violence against religious minorities, fostered in part by government persecution and discriminatory laws, is frequent.” [3] To highlight these atrocities, in June 2020 silent protesters gathered at the UN in Geneva to “raise a voice in solidarity to eradicate the malicious blasphemy law and forced conversions in Pakistan.” [4]

In 1956, Pakistan was formed as an Islamic Republic with Muslims exclusively serving as President and Prime Minister. In 2019, there was legislation introduced but blocked which would have to allowed non-Muslims to hold these key positions. Nevertheless, 33 seats of the National Assembly are reserved for non-Muslims. The Constitution, adopted in 1973, was amended in 1974 to define Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslims, a group that is often marginalized along with other religious minorities. [5]

Part 2, Chapter 1, Article 20 of the Pakistani Constitution states, “Freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions. Subject to law, public order and morality: – (a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the rights to establish maintain and manage its religious institutions.” [6] Although these rights are guaranteed for all Pakistani citizens, they have consistently failed to be protected in practice by authorities.

In 2018, Imran Khan of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party was elected Prime Minister. He vowed to protect the rights of religious minorities, including their places of worship, property, and institutions. “I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. Our minorities are equal citizens of this country,” declared Prime Minister Khan on February 26, 2020. [7] However, his government has failed to effectively ensure equal justice and protect minorities from violence, hate speech, and discrimination. In fact, since Khan took office there were reported 31 dead, 58 injured, and 25 blasphemy cases among religious minorities (through March 2020). [8]

Key factors contributing to persecution in Pakistan include blasphemy laws and Anti-Ahmadiyya laws, which are elements of a stratified society defined by religious affiliation.  Pakistanis are required to state their religion on their identification cards and access to employment, education, and legal processes often depend upon one’s religion. As a result of this structure, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and other religious minorities all face persecution. Blasphemy laws target these groups disproportionally and often the accused does not receive a fair legal process. [9]

International Christian Concern recently released a comprehensive report on the use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan; highlighting the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy who spent eight years on death row before being released. Her release was the direct result of international pressure and advocacy. Her situation provides valuable lessons in advocating for the 28 others currently held on blasphemy charges.  ICC recommends “quiet, consistent and specific” advocacy coupled with broader international pressure. [10]

Decades ago, many lower caste Hindus converted to Christianity with hopes of escaping such a caste system which limited their rights and educational and employment opportunities. However, they now find themselves in a similar situation.  Christians have been specifically recruited as “sweepers” to clean sewers; a grueling, dangerous, filthy and low-paying job. They go down into the sewer system and clean it with their bare hands amid human filth, toxic fumes, and sludge. Many die doing so. While Christians make up only 1.59% of Pakistan’s roughly 200 million-person population, [11] human rights groups “believe they fill about 80% of the sweeper jobs. Lower-caste Hindus mostly fill the rest of the slots.” [12] Amidst public pressure, the government dropped the religious affiliation requirement for these, and other low paying positions considered demeaning. However, Muslims often will not clean sewers, thus essentially eliminating any positive impact from the omission of the religious requirement. [13]

Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities are also subject to forced conversions.  Typically, forced conversions occur in situations of bonded labor and, more commonly, abductions of girls who are often raped and forced to marry their perpetrator. Local authorities are frequently complicit; not fully investigating nor adjudicating these cases.  If they do, often the girl is questioned in front of the man she was forced to marry.  The Aurat Foundation estimates that “around 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year.” [14] According to report, forced conversion occurs when “any person or persons use any sort of pressure, force, duress or threat, whether physical, emotional or psychological, to make another person adopt another religion. . . It is common that such means are used not just on the victim himself or herself but also can also be used or threatened to be used on the victim’s family, loved ones or community”. [15] Several attempts to criminalize forced religious conversions have been unsuccessful. Most recently, on October 8, 2019, the Sindh Province Assembly failed to pass a proposed bill criminalizing forced religious conversions. [16]

Although terrorism has decreased in recent years, Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi continue to operate in Pakistan. Religious minorities, as well as Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, have been targeted by these terrorists’ groups. As a result of an anti-terrorist crackdown, in February 2020, an anti-terrorist court convicted a prominent leader, Hafiz Saeed, of terrorist financing. [17]

While persecution persists, some positive developments have occurred. There have been several acquittals in high profile blasphemy cases in which prisoners faced the death penalty. In addition, educational materials are being revised to eliminate discriminatory content aimed at religious minorities.  Beginning in 2021, the government is instituting a common national curriculum to be implemented in all schools including some thirty thousand madrassas. These actions may be attributed in part to diplomatic pressure asserted by the US during the recent Trump administration, including a visit from the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback in February of 2020. [18]

I recently spoke with a pastor who returned from Pakistan in December 2020.  While there, he preached and conducted religious services without opposition or government inference.  He stated that the people, Christian and Muslim alike, were friendly and receptive. They were hungry for the hope offered by the Gospel. He plans to return to Pakistan again this spring to conduct evangelistic crusades, and is extremely optimistic about the freedom to preach that he has experienced there.  I pray his experience is a harbinger of increased religious freedom for Christians in Pakistan.

Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

  8. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.