In this predominantly Muslim nation, religious extremism and resentment of the West contribute to violence against Pakistani Christians.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: Most churches in Pakistan, like Karachi’s Trinity Methodist, are the legacy of British colonial rule. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built to serve Irish Catholic soldiers in the British army.
Today’s Christians are less than two percent of Pakistan’s population. Most are descendants of people converted from Hinduism or Islam by missionaries, generations-in some cases centuries-ago. They consider themselves fully Pakistani. But often, Catholic archbishop Joseph Coutts says, that’s not how they’re perceived.
BISHOP JOSEPH COUTTS (Catholic Archbishop of Karachi): Because of our colonial past Christianity has been, is being identified with colonialism.
DE SAM LAZARO: With the West.
COUTTS: With the West in general. We are sort of linked with being products of the West.
DE SAM LAZARO: That has made Christians targets for all kinds of grievances against the West-whether a drone strike in the region or an anti-Islamic pronouncement in Florida.
COUTTS: I can give you a very dramatic example. We had, I think about two years back, a pastor, or he claimed to be a pastor, but if he was, I don’t know, Terry Jones, an American pastor who wanted to burn the Holy Qur’an, and of course there was the sort of a backlash on the Christians, and we had to make it very clear that we are not to be identified with this Reverend Terry Jones.
DE SAM LAZARO: Last week’s suicide bombing (September 22) that killed at least 78 in a Peshawar church compound was the worst ever but not the first attack against Christians even this year. In March, two churches and 100 Christian homes were attacked in the eastern city of Lahore.
COUTTS: We see an increasing form of Islam which is much more militant, which is much narrower and even quite extremist. Even Islamic sects that are not considered orthodox are also being targeted, which is not the Islam of the majority, which is a very moderate, open-minded Islam.
DE SAM LAZARO: He says a moderate Islam shaped early Pakistan, created in 1947 by the departing British to be a home for Muslims. But that moderation began to erode with growing fundamentalism. Christians, long subject to social and economic discrimination, became constitutionally second-class. Non-Muslims are ineligible to be president or prime minister, for example. In the late ’70s a militant resistance, today’s Taliban, grew to the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, with strong U.S support, Coutts adds.
COUTTS: So the policy was “Stop the darn communists, stop them at any cost.” And that’s the time these, this brand of Islam was the madrasah, which is a centuries-old institution in Islam to teach the Qur’an. Many madrasahs became sort of centers for a religious kind of brainwashing, for jihad. And with American blessing and support and training and money. Our economy became strong. The worst military dictator we had, Zia-ul-Haq, was kept in power.
DE SAM LAZARO: Zia supported the jihadists and also imposed a conservative interpretation of Muslim sharia law. Most frightening for many even today is a blasphemy law. Anyone accused is subject to imprisonment without bail and at least on paper faces a death sentence. This law is commonly used against non-Muslims, often to settle personal grudges or business disputes, says Roland de Souza, partner in a Karachi engineering firm.
ROLAND DE SOUZA: Somebody comes and accuses someone of either burning a page of the Qur’an or having said something against the Prophet of Islam, and before anybody can actually be arrested under the law, vigilante justice takes over. The news is spread in the neighborhood, and most of these neighborhoods are either slums or rural areas, and people come out wanting to lynch the accused.
DE SAM LAZARO: Since the late ’80s, some 250 blasphemy cases have been brought and an estimated 52 people lynched or killed after being accused of blasphemy.
(to de Souza) Why would somebody believe me if I ran out into the street and said you are burning pages of the Qur’an or doing something else that was insulting of your religion?
DE SOUZA: I can see you come from America. Just on the road here, if somebody stood in the middle and said a mosque has been burned someplace, whether it’s Jordan or Saudi Arabia, let’s go and burn St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he could probably collect 5 to 10,000 people within 15 minutes. If I was in New York City and I were to stand up there and say the Muslims have destroyed St. Peter’s Cathedral, let’s go and burn that mosque three blocks down, somebody would probably slip down to the nearest telephone and call the police and say, “There’s a crazy guy who’s standing out here. Can you come get him?” That is the difference.
DE SAM LAZARO: That crazy guy in New York, why does he become the credible guy on the street here?
DE SOUZA: It’s a good question. I’m not sure that I can answer entirely. One is the level of education. The second is the level of frustration. So you want to hit out against somebody. A big bogeyman is the West, America, and by consequence of relation, Christians.
DE SAM LAZARO: Despite the relatively low number of Christians, Christian-run orphanages, hospitals, and schools still thrive. Many of the country’s Muslim elite attended Christian schools. Principal Irene Pearl says Trinity Methodist Girls School is committed to admitting children from poor families, many of them from the Christian minority. But there’s no hint in the morning prayer of Trinity’s religious affiliation.
IRENE PEARL (Principal, Trinity Methodist Girls Higher Secondary School): We do not talk or quote the Holy Bible. We say let us be good human beings. Let us be good daughters, let us be good Pakistanis, but above all let us be good human beings.
DE SAM LAZARO: It is illegal in Pakistan for a Muslim to convert to any other faith, and Pearl wants to dispel any notion that the school is trying to convert Muslims, who account for 60 percent of her students.
PEARL: I have to be extremely careful how I word myself. Sometimes, you know, like we have a Christmas concert. The children want to participate, the Muslim children want to participate, but I say no, get a permission letter from your parents.
DE SAM LAZARO: She thinks Muslim parents are mostly satisfied that their children are getting a good education with patriotic values. But she fears few would come to her support in a pinch, for fear of their safety. Just two years ago a prominent political leader was gunned down after calling for mercy for a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. His assassin was cheered by crowds, and dozens of lawyers offered to defend him for free.
COUTTS: We feel most of the time we are not equal. Not only not equal, but the growing feeling that we are not even wanted.
DE SAM LAZARO: Is it safe to assume that Christians, you know, the majority of whom are very modest or low economic means, but those who can leave would like to leave Pakistan?
COUTTS: Not only Christians, others as well. We, I think, have lost a lot of the Christian community, the educated community. Those who are economically better off and were able to afford migrating to greener pastures have already done so, and there are many others who would like to do so.
DE SAM LAZARO: For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Karachi.