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Religious Minorities in Pakistan Under Threat
The violence that we witnessed in Jaranwala last August is only the tip of the iceberg.
A few weeks ago many in the world were shocked when footage from Jaranwala, in the Pakistani district of Punjab, came out. On August 16th an angry mob of 5,000 Muslims stormed the Christian area and attacked an estimated 400 houses of Christians living there. Houses were destroyed, set on fire, and ransacked of all valuables the attackers could lay their hands on.
I spoke with Dr. Adil Ghouri from the Pakistan Christian Awareness Movement who told me that 129 Muslims were arrested after the violent incidents occurred of which only 29 are currently under investigation by the police. The remaining hundred were all released. Ghouri informs us also that most aid to families whose houses were destroyed comes from Christian communities in Pakistan itself. There has been some financial aid from the government, but people who are now homeless due to the atrocities are mostly dependent on the already poor Christian population.
A young Christian woman, who was supposed to get married two days after the attack happened, told me that her wedding dress was taken as well as her dowry. Only ten minutes after we hung up, her uncle too was arrested on blasphemy charges. It is stories like these, little personal dramas, that haunt me, even though I have covered many stories of religious persecution and violence over the years. John, a Christian contact in Pakistan who knows the family well, explained what this means:
“Women and girls of religious minority groups here are already vulnerable, especially the unmarried ones. I want to see that girl married, if only for at least some protection against abduction and forced marriage and conversion.”
To many in the West, marriage is a happy day, a celebration of the unity of two people in love. For a great number of Pakistan’s marginalized communities especially for women and girls, it offers some form of protection, however futile it may seem to us. In July I interviewed two Christians from Pakistan. One of them, a young woman called Naila Waseem, shared the horrific story of threats made by an Islamic extremist group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. After a Christian man from Iraq burned some pages from the Qur’an in Stockholm, Sweden these extremists made it clear that all Christians in the world would have to pay for his actions as a form of retaliation. When I asked Waseem if she thought the Pakistani authorities would protect the Christians in Pakistan against violence, she said:
“Eventually, they will come to our aid, but only after all our houses have been attacked and many Christians will have lost their lives. Then, and only then, they will come and help us.”
A little more than a month later, what Naila Waseem had predicted became reality in Jaranwala.
From there, the violence and threats against the Christians in Pakistan have spread to Lahore, Karachi, and other cities.
What started the violence in Jaranwala was an accusation of blasphemy against two Christian men. Under sections 295-B and 295-C people in Pakistan can be accused and arrested for blasphemy. Under Pakistani law, blasphemy is punishable by death. According to persecution watchdog Open Doors, almost a quarter of the blasphemy accusations are against Christians, which is an extremely high percentage considering that they only make up 1.8 percent of the entire population.
One of the most famous cases was that of Asia Bibi; a Pakistani Christian woman who was imprisoned for almost a decade on false charges of blasphemy. When she finally was acquitted of all charges and released from prison, an angry mob wanted to lynch her and her family. Bibi and her direct family had to ask for asylum outside of Pakistan because after her release she would never be safe again in her own country and have to fear for her life or that of her loved ones.
Also in Jaranwala, there were accusations of blasphemy against Christians. Even after all the violence we have seen in the middle of August, in the aftermath of it all, there are stories of new arrests and accusations coming in every day. Even a church pastor, Amjad Alam, was arrested in Jaranwala for alleged desecration of the Qur’an. This has spread now to other cities in Pakistan as well. In addition, there have been recent arrests on blasphemy charges in Karachi, Lahore, and other cities.
Just as in the case of Asia Bibi, these blasphemy cases can take years, often foreign diplomatic intervention is needed to help free the accused. While the international community calls on Pakistan to abrogate these harsh blasphemy laws, the country itself, under pressure from Islamist groups, seems to take even further steps to increase not only legal prosecution on blasphemy charges but also, for example on social media, more strict surveillance.
Going back to the Qur’an burning in Sweden, Pakistan initiated a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council to “address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred.” Most Western countries present at the meeting, including the United States of America, opposed the resolution, but it was approved due to member states such as Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Qatar. It is interesting to note that communist China, a country that is atheist and is ranked number 16 on the annual Open Doors Christian persecution list, also voted in favor of the resolution.
Unfortunately what happened in Jaranwala was not a one-off. Christians in Pakistan live as second-class citizens. For example, an estimated two percent of the entire Pakistani population are sanitation workers, and eighty percent of them are Christians, yet Christians only make up 1.6 percent of the entire population in Pakistan. In the country’s capital Islamabad, ninety percent of all sanitation workers are Christians. Another vulnerable group is Christian women and children doing domestic labor. These women and children often are faced with physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, despite the Domestic Workers Act from 2019 which should protect children from these abusive jobs. Many women and children working as maids in Pakistan are Christian.
Often only an accusation, no documented proof needed, is enough to have someone arrested and investigated by the police for blasphemy accusations. Open Doors also mentions apathy on the side of the government to protect the vulnerable religious minority groups in Pakistan. Some experts say that the government is under the influence of radical groups such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The government signed a declaration stating that TLP is not a terrorist organization. In June this year TLP announced it would hold a protest march called the Pakistan Bachao March (Save Pakistan March), however, it called off the march after negotiations with the current regime. The Islamic extremist group demanded harsher punishment for blasphemy and the government bowed down to their demands.
Abduction Minority Girls
The vulnerability of religious minorities in Pakistan becomes even more apparent, as mentioned above in the example John shared with us, through the abduction, forced marriage, and forced conversion to Islam of over 1,000 girls from religious minority groups every year. Not only Christian girls but also girls from Sikh and Hindu communities are disappearing into these forced marriages regularly. Although there have been expressions of concern and urges towards Pakistan to act from both the European Union and the United Nations on several occasions, still Pakistan does not meet the minimum standards to make a change to combat this huge problem by only granting adults to change their religion was thwarted; in 2021 for example, Muslim clerics opposed a bill that would stop these practices and argued that it was ‘unIslamic.’
Just as we see an increase of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan there is also an upsurge in abductions, forced marriage, and forced conversions of minor girls from non-Muslim communities. Not only does the government easily give in to the demands of Islamist groups, but we also hear from religious minority groups that the police do little to nothing to save their daughters or punish the perpetrators after a young girl is abducted. All too often the few times such a case actually does end up in court and parents fight hard to free their daughter from such forced marriages, the judge sides with the abductors. Under Shariah (Islamic law) a non-Muslim cannot be the guardian of a Muslim child. This is often abused to refuse parents the right to stand up for their own child in court because after she has been forcibly converted to Islam, she no longer falls under their responsibility.
The violence that we witnessed in Jaranwala last August is only the tip of the iceberg. This was one major incident that got worldwide attention, most of the violence, abuse, discrimination, and false accusations against religious minorities in Pakistan however remain unknown to a broader audience.
Jaranwala was not the first Christian colony that fell victim to angry mob violence; similar cases happened for example in Joseph Colony in Lahore where in 2013 houses were ransacked, and destroyed, a total of 170 houses were burned down, leaving 300 families homeless. Just as in Jaranwala this also was after a Christian man was accused of blasphemy, and, as we have seen last August, the police did or could not protect the community from the violent attacks. Four years after the events in Joseph Colony, 117 of the accused walked free due to lack of evidence.