Christians in Pakistan Face Violence and Persecution
Despite making up a small proportion of Pakistan’s population, Christians face violence and persecution on an almost daily basis. False blasphemy accusations spark violent mobs that attack and burn Christian homes and churches.
Businessman Parvez Henry Gill wants to change that. His bold architectural protest is taking shape in a bustling neighborhood near a Christian cemetery in Karachi.
Christianity is the second largest minority group in Pakistan. There are countless Christian villages throughout the Punjab heartland, and a sizeable community in the deeply conservative north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Christians make up 1.6% of the nation’s population.
They are confined to low-wage jobs and often face discrimination, as with the case of Rehmat Masih, who lives in one of Islamabad’s crowded, trash-strewn slums known as the “100 Quarters” (AsiaNews 23 Aug. 2012). His story exemplifies the wider issues that face Christian minorities in Pakistan.
Though Muslims and Christians co-exist amiably, mob violence against the Christian community has become common. Christians are also often accused of blasphemy, which critics say is used to settle personal scores or business disputes. The religious freedom organisation Open Doors ranked Pakistan as number eight on its 2022 World Watch List of countries where believers face the most severe persecution. The country has a blasphemy law that can result in imprisonment or even death.
There are about 4.2 million Christians in Pakistan, a minority among the country’s 229 million Muslims. They are often viewed as second-class citizens, and their faith is under constant attack. Christians face discrimination in every aspect of their lives, from social services to education. They have a hard time getting jobs, and they are disproportionately pushed to lower-class work — including working in brick kilns and sewage lines.
Christian women and girls are particularly vulnerable to kidnappings and forced marriages. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws make it easy for Muslims, without any proof, to accuse non-Muslims of insulting Islam or Muhammad. The penalty can be death.
Many Christian political organizations are working to redress the issues that plague Christians in Pakistan. The most notable example is the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 after she was accused of blasphemy by Muslim coworkers. After a long appeals process, the court overturned her conviction and she was released from prison.
In Pakistan, Christians have been relegated to sanitation work and other hazardous occupations as a result of centuries-old discriminatory practices, says Asif Aqeel, deputy director at the Centre for Law and Justice, a policy research and minority rights organisation in Punjab. The country’s Christian population is mostly descended from lower caste Hindus who converted to Christianity in the 19th and early 20th century, partly as a way of escaping Hinduism’s caste system.
They have long provided labour in garrison towns, where they are still found today. Many also serve as teachers, doctors and lawyers.
However, a significant number remain poor and illiterate. They are subjected to discrimination and sometimes even violence (BPCA 14 Dec. 2012). In the past, false accusations of blasphemy have been used to drive out Christian communities. As a group, they are also poorly represented in parliament. They depend on a few reserved seats for minorities to elect representatives. But they cannot compete with the number of votes that Muslim candidates receive in free-for-all elections.
The majority of Christians in Pakistan are descendants of low-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity under British colonial rule to escape caste discrimination. The community has long been active in public service, including serving in the Pakistan armed forces and civilian services. But their lives are marred by violent attacks against churches, homes and individuals on the basis of false blasphemy accusations.
Aqeel has compiled a harrowing repository of job ads that specifically invited Christians and non-Muslims to apply for janitorial positions in government agencies. He is working to identify and challenge any laws, policies or rules that sanction abuse of the country’s marginalized Christian minority.
In cities like Lahore, Christian men make up the vast majority of the nation’s sanitation workforce and are often forced to perform unsafe maintenance in sewer lines because Muslim employers refuse to work with them. Meanwhile, young Christian women are at high risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage to non-Christians, a practice that has become socially sanctioned under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.