Rimsha Masih’s family spent Christmas Day as they have spent the last four months: in hiding, afraid for their lives. In August, the young girl, who is aged between 10 and 14 and suffers from learning difficulties, was arrested and charged with blasphemy after a local cleric falsely accused her of desecrating pages of the Noorani Qaida. She was incarcerated in one of Pakistan’s toughest prisons for three weeks. Amid international outrage, she was eventually freed, but that does not mean she is safe. Those accused of blasphemy frequently die at the hands of angry mobs before they have even faced trial. Her house, in Mehrabad, a run-down Christian area on the outskirts of Islamabad, stands empty. Given the visceral fury that the mere allegation of blasphemy prompts, it should be no surprise that the Rimsha case inflamed local tensions. Many of her neighbours fled their homes in the ensuing crisis. For those who remained, it has been a bleak festive period. “Normally at Christmas we put up stars on our houses, but this year we will not be able to do this,” Amjad Shehzad, a local resident, told AFP.
About two per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million is Christian. In numerical terms, that translates to around five million people — half the population of Tunisia. This sizeable minority has long suffered economic, social and legal discrimination — and it is getting worse. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that 2012 was one of the worst years for Pakistan’s Christians in the country’s history, with churches burned, houses looted and many from the community charged with blasphemy.
According to the UK-based organisation Minority Rights Watch, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities. Ahmadis, Christians and Shias all face serious discrimination on a daily basis, ranging from difficulty in getting jobs to the heightened risk of terrorist violence. This is due to a combination of long-standing, culturally ingrained prejudices and the recent upsurge in extremism.
The discrimination against Christians is a hangover from the Hindu caste system which stretches back over a thousand years. During colonisation, the ‘untouchable’ or Dalit class were targets of missionary activity and many converted to Christianity. Despite the adoption of a new religion, the passage of time, and the formation of a country supposedly free of the caste system, the stigma remains. This translates into difficulty getting anything but the most menial jobs. Many are sweepers and cannot be promoted to other household positions because Muslim servants refuse to share cutlery or water with them. “They don’t let us move ahead,” Sujawal Masih, a sweeper, told me last year. “We get no chances. If they know you’re a Christian, they say: there’s no room here for you.”
The situation has not been helped by the increase in religious extremism and militancy. In Karachi alone, two churches were attacked in the space of 10 days in October. At least six have been vandalised in the city this year. In the aftermath of the riots against the anti-Islam YouTube clip, I noticed several churches in Karachi displaying signs outside their gates condemning the video and its insult to the Holy Prophet (pbuh). This was a concerted effort to avoid backlash for a crime that was not theirs in the first place.
Of course, the picture is not entirely bleak. In South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold near the Afghanistan border, and probably the least likely location in the world for a Christmas congregation, 200 parishioners turned out to celebrate on December 25. This collective, public worship was possible because the church is situated inside an army base that was established in 2009. Although the church is only able to operate due to the heavily fortified conditions that protect it from the militant threat, it is a good example of the authorities actually taking action to protect minorities — something which is all too frequently lacking.
Across the board, there is a disturbing lack of concern for safeguarding minority rights and freedom of religion in Pakistan. Officially entrenched discrimination is rife, from the blasphemy law that is often used to persecute minorities, to the legal clause that requires Pakistani citizens to agree that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. In effect, this provides a legal mandate for bigotry. Politicians are too afraid to water down these laws due to widespread support for them. Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2011, after a dispute over sharing water, remains in prison. Conversely, Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer for taking up her cause, is still alive, hailed by many as a hero. The mob mentality prevails and minority communities are left to fend for themselves, keeping an ever lower profile. This was clearly evident in muted Christmas celebrations across the country. The day may have passed without major incident, but the fear remains. If a country is to be judged by how it treats it’s most vulnerable, Pakistan is not doing well.
There is no quick fix for this situation. The authorities make the right noises when places of worship are attacked, but do not follow through with convictions of those responsible or serious action to prevent further attacks. Education, community cohesion work, and legal reform are the only hope of changing attitudes, and all will take a serious investment of time and money. This does not appear to be forthcoming. An oft-repeated perspective is that given the dangers faced by the wider population, with mosques and Sufi shrines being attacked, one cannot expect minorities to be safe. This indicates an unacceptable level of complacency. The protection of minorities is not only a moral necessity, but something that was crucial to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan. “We have many non-Muslims — Hindus, Christians and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis,” he said, in a celebrated speech. With churches attacked every time there is an outpouring of anti-American sentiment, that message is clearly not being remembered.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2012.