The founding father of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned a country, though based on Islam, to be pluralistic in its ethos accepting believers of other religions such as Christians, Hindus, Parsis and Sikhs. Undeniably, the white patch in the Pakistani flag symbolizes the nation’s religious minority communities. 1 Jinnah, on the occasion of his first speech before the members of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947 had clearly declared that non-Muslims would be equal citizens in the new country and that every person living in the country was an equal citizen irrespective of his or her community, caste, color or faith.2
Today, however, there is a majoritarian outlook in Pakistan dominated by Islam, belonging to the Sunni denomination. Regrettably, Pakistan has descended to its current state of religious intolerance through a series of political decisions made by its leaders, after the death of Jinnah. The descent began in 1949 with the Constituent Assembly declaring the objective of Pakistan’s Constitution to be the creation of an Islamic state.3 Nevertheless, the first blow to Jinnah’s version of secular Pakistan came in 1962 when the Pakistan Advisory Council for Islamic Ideology added a repugnancy clause to the Constitution stating that all the laws should be brought in conformity with the Quran and Sunnah.4
But, over the succeeding decades, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pakistani state, rather than guaranteeing equal rights and equal opportunities to its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, began to encourage dogmatist forces. 5 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto created a Ministry for Religious and Minorities Affairs, which was to undertake programmes appealing to the religious sentiments of the population. Gradually over the next few years, religious ceremonies were telecasted live on state television; the printing of the Quran was standardized, and religious schools began to receive government funding.6
Through this course, the military rule of Zia ul Haq proved to be extremely harmful for the progressive thinkers of Pakistan. Since the implementation of Sharia, an unnecessary trial of strength prevails between supporters of a secular state and Islamic fundamentalists aspiring to set up an Islamic state. With the Presidential Order No. 8 of 1984, the law on separate electorates and communal representation was established, where non-Muslims would have their own constituencies and separate representatives. In this, even the elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif consistently shied away from annulling the separate electorates law.7
With time, the situation concerning minority rights and their protection has deteriorated so much that right wing Islamist groups often succeeding in mobilising angry mobs and encouraging them to attack minority communities. This situation does not only stem from the narrative built by radical elements, but is also compounded by the state constitution that is responsible for structural prejudice against the minority groups.8
Whilst Christianity has a centuries-long history in the Indian Subcontinent, most Christians in Pakistan are descendants of low-caste Hindus who converted during the British colonial rule, to escape caste discrimination. In 1947, during the partition of India, the majority of the converts in Punjab became part of the Protestant community in Pakistan. After Partition, many were confined to menial jobs in the sanitation industry. Today, the stigma of Dalit ancestry is a distinct feature of social discrimination against Christians in Pakistan.9
Discrimination against the Christian community is deeply rooted in Pakistan. The legacy of the caste system means that Christians continue to face widespread discrimination and are often perceived as unclean by the Muslim majority, who describe them using derogatory terms such as ‘churha’ or ‘kafir,’ which means infidel. A large proportion of the Christian community comes from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, is poorly educated, and takes up low-paid manual labour such as in brick kilns or the sanitation sector.10 Perhaps the greatest suffering faced by Christian community is the underlying societal hostility, the daily discrimination such as denial of services, access to political voice, or limitation to educational opportunities.
Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have also been convicted of desecrating the Quran or blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad, though experts say most accusations are fueled by personal disputes. In fact, in 2012, a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, became the first non-Muslim to be acquitted in a blasphemy case when it was revealed that she had been framed by a local Muslim cleric.
Post 2001, violence and discrimination against Christians in Pakistan has definitely increased. Seen as connected to the ‘West’ due to their religious belief, Christians have at times been made scapegoats for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the enormous human suffering seen as a consequence of interventions in other countries with large Muslim populations. Christians have continued to suffer targeted violence and other abuses, including land-grabbing in rural areas, abductions and forced conversion, and the vandalization of homes and churches.11 It remains to be seen the effect of the pullout of US forces from Afghanistan will now have on the Christians of Pakistan.
In 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court passed a landmark verdict in the country’s most high-profile blasphemy case, acquitting Christian the woman Aasiya Bibi after she had spent nine years on the death row. The move angered the country’s far-right religious parties, leading to widespread protests led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which has frequently advocated for violence against those accused of blasphemy.12
The southern metropolis of Karachi has a large Christian population, as do the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad. There are innumerable Christian villages in the Punjab heartland, while there is also a considerable population in the deeply conservative north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly in Peshawar city. Many provided labour in garrison towns. In fact, to this day, every cantonment city in Pakistan has an area known as Lal Kurti, which is traditionally where the Christians reside. Nonetheless, Christian communities remain among the poorest sections of society and often still do menial jobs. Entire villages in parts of Punjab are Christian and their inhabitants work as labourers and farmhands.13
Discrimination experienced by Christians
Blasphemy: Lahore High Court overturned a death sentence handed down to a Christian couple for blasphemy, citing lack of evidence. Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were convicted in 2014 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. But on June 3, 2021, the couple’s lawyer Saif ul Malook said the Court had acquitted them. A prosecution lawyer said that the latest ruling would be challenged.14
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue to be a source of controversy and suffering, having extremely adverse effects on the accused and their families. A false accusation can be a punishment in itself, since a number of cases have provoked brutal mob violence against the accused and their families. Significant changes were brought in during the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq and the Blasphemy Law was promulgated in 1985. In 1990 the punishment of life imprisonment under this law, which sought to penalise irreverence towards the Holy Quran and insulting the Holy Prophet, was included. In 1992, the government went a step ahead and introduced the death penalty for a person held guilty of blasphemy under Blasphemy Clause 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate the right to life; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; and freedom of opinion and expression. While they purport to guard religious sentiment, blasphemy laws are often misused to include professional rivalry, personal or religious disputes, hostility towards religious minorities, and seeking economic gains such as money and land.15 Today, the law has become a tool against the Christians. Often as a consequence of a hurried blasphemy accusation and the pressure of the local Imam, angry mob have meted out ‘justice’ by robbing and burning whole Christian households, forcing them to flee from the neighbourhood. More than 90 per cent of Christians in Pakistan reside in Punjab. And 60 per cent live in the rural landscape. Blasphemy and desecration of the Quran are used against them, but the latter is used against them collectively, followed by organised destruction of their property.16According to the latest figures (1987-2018) from the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a total of 229 Christians, have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987.17Moreover, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 2020 designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern because of its “systematic enforcement” of blasphemy and other controversial laws against religious minorities.18
Forced Marriage: Forced marriages of girls take place under the majority religious law which deems puberty as a license for marriage. The failure of law enforcement officials to carry out proper investigations further impedes justice for victims and their families. Police often turn a blind eye to reports of abduction and forced conversions thereby creating impunity for perpetrators. Both the lower and higher courts of Pakistan have also failed to follow proper procedures in cases that involve accusations of forced marriage and forced conversions.
According to a 2014 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a human rights NGO, “Cases for forced marriages and conversions can be distinguished by a specific pattern or process: Christian girls, usually between the ages of 12 and 25 are abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or the third party. The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity. Upon production in the courts or before the magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or if she was abducted. In most cases, the girl remains in custody of the abductor while judicial proceedings are carried out. Upon the girl’s pronouncement that she willfully converted and consented to the marriage; the case is settled without relief for the family. Once in the custody of the abductor, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse.”19
According to human rights organisations as many as 1,000 Christian girls are abducted each year. Many of them are forced to convert to Islam, because it is widely believed in Pakistan that marriages under the age of 16 are acceptable under Sharia law if both individuals getting married are Muslim. Even when abducted children are rescued, their ordeal is often far from over. In many cases threats are made to abduct them again, or kill family members, and the trauma goes on.20
Discriminatory Employment Policy: Seemingly to prevent discrimination in employment in the public sector, a quota system was put in place by Zia, reserving five percent of public sector jobs for minorities, and the other 95 per cent of jobs being on the basis of open merit including minority candidates. However, in practice this system does little for positive action, and in fact aggravates social discrimination and typecasts against minorities. This is because many municipalities fill their five percent quota by employing only minorities in undesirable positions such as sanitation workers. In some communities there have even been reports of notices for such jobs indicating that Muslims need not apply.
Most Pakistani Christians living in major cities are consigned to sanitation jobs and live a life of poverty. In Peshawar, for example, as many as 80 percent of Christians are sanitation workers. In Lahore, Christians account for 6,000 out of the 7,894 sanitation workers. Newspaper ads for sanitation jobs, including by government agencies, frequently call for non-Muslims specifically. 21Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants.22
Property Issues and Land Grabbing: Christians in Pakistan are also victims of a widespread phenomenon, i.e. land-grabbing (misappropriation of land).Some powerful landowners, with political support, arbitrarily confiscate the lands of poor and vulnerable farmers. The phenomenon is rather common in Sindh, where the seized lands are sold with high profits.23Interestingly, the practice of land-grabbing is not a new effort either. In 1975, a Catholic priest, Fr. Derick Muskeeta, relocated approximately 900 Christian families to a village in MuzafarGhar in a desert to make it livable. The Christian community named the village after the priest: “Derickabad” (Derick Town). After years of hard work, they made the barren ground into a fertile piece of land; though, sadly, most of the village was later seized by an influential Muslim landlord.24
Recently, in the month of March, 2021, the houses of 450 Catholic families were destroyed in Pakistan. The country’s Supreme Court ruled that the homes are on state-owned lands, and their presence makes the cities of Hyderabad and Karachi more flood-prone, since they block the path of rainwater to the sea.25The weakness on the part of the administration encourages such attacks on religious minorities. The culprits are usually let off scot-free. Religion is thus used to settle personal scores while the locals continue to fear another attack.26
Discrimination in Education: The education system in Pakistan is both discriminatory in its content and the level of access to education given to members of minority groups. Such is the system that it helps fuel hatred against minorities through the propagation of negative stereotypes in school curricula. These curricula, notably those of public schools, have been thoroughly examined by several organisations that have concluded that they portray a society that is not protective of minorities. While in theory students have the option to study either Islamiyat or a secular ethics course, the latter is often not offered in public schools, as authorities claim that there are not enough students interested in taking the course to justify hiring a teacher for that purpose.
One of the dangerous trends in Pakistan with respect to education is also the negative role played by the teachers. Some school teachers have an extremist mindset and directly or indirectly try to influence non-Muslim children towards believing that their faith is illogical, and contrary to the universal truth wherein Islam is the only true & divine faith. Also, psychological violence was quoted as a major reason for students facing difficulty in excelling in education. It was reported that some Christians hide their identity to avoid religious segregation in school. There are complaints by students that their classmates call them Isai Chuhra (a derogatory term). They refuse combined eating and drinking or even sitting together. The area, city and school that the minority student goes to also matters. To the extent that some Christians were said to give their children Islamic names so they would not be singled out as potential targets for discrimination at school.27
Thus, the security situation in Pakistan is just not conducive for Christians. There is an intense sense of fear prevailing within the community, due to factors that have been highlighted above. There is no doubt that violence against the Christians has been on the rise. But sadly, for the past several decades, the Pakistani authorities have incessantly failed to effectively protect minorities from faith-based violence. Even when some governments made pledges to bring criminals of such violence to justice, these promises have remained unfulfilled with regards to crimes committed against Christians. The State’s debacle to fight impunity for such crimes is seen as an unspoken approval with the accentuated levels of religious intolerance and increasingly brazen acts of discrimination and violence against Christians and other minorities.
Regrettably, the targeting of and widespread discrimination against members of the Christian community, along with other religious minorities, is often enabled by the indifference to the crimes or the vigorous support to the perpetrators by the authorities. This has also contributed to the continual worsening of the state of affairs within Pakistan. To large extent the future of the country is now consequent upon whether Jinnah’s dream can be possibly realized where all religious communities are treated as equal citizens within Pakistan. However, given the deteriorating human rights situation, that seems like a far cry.