In a country officially made up of more than 96% Muslims, religious minorities feel they live on the fringes of a society that grants them—at best—the status of dhimmis. They fear, rightly, to bear the brunt of the crises that are looming in a nation with growing instability.
In 1947, during the independence of Pakistan, in a context of extreme violence, the flag was drawn with obvious Islamic symbols, the green color and crescent of Islam. But a white band on the left symbolized religious minorities. Like a place granted to them in the “land of the pure,” the literal meaning of the name “Pakistan.” The nation had just been born and was struggling to find a common identity among the Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhî, Baluch, etc. peoples. who composed it. They had in common Islam—with serious variations—which was to serve as the basis of the new nation.
Nearly 70 years later, the demographic weight of these minorities, mainly Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, has continued to decline. In 1947, 23% of Pakistan’s population was non-Muslim, while in 2022 the proportion had fallen to 3.5%. If the white band of the flag had to be adjusted to the proportion of the population it represents, the band would be barely visible today. These figures, however, deserve to be weighed, because as the latest ACN Religious Freedom Report denounces, several Muslim states are cheating on the real number of non-Muslims in their country. The decline of minorities in Pakistan is no less indisputable.
This decline does not correspond to a well-established political agenda. No Pakistani ruler has claimed it, and no plan of action against minorities, however secret, stands out in the country’s history. On the other hand, minorities are steadily losing their political representation and weight in Pakistani society.
Hindus who did not decide to emigrate to India at the time of independence know that they are suspect in the eyes of Muslims, as they could represent a fifth column in the event of a confrontation between the two enemy countries. As for the Christians, their case illustrates how a population gradually loses its foothold in its own country. During English colonization, lower-caste Hindus and even untouchables converted, creating a new church parallel to the historic Indian churches of Malabar and Malankara, known as the “Christians of St. Thomas.” With the support of Western Christians, the new Catholic Churches played a major social role, notably through their hospitals and schools.
In Pakistan, these structures were nationalized during the tenure of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977), the nation’s first democratically elected leader. He was also the first leader to speak out explicitly in favor of an Islamic Pakistan. As a result, Catholic schools have been unable to play the role they do in comparable countries such as Iraq and Syria. In the latter two countries, Christian schools have a reputation for excellence that encourages wealthy Muslims to send their children there. In addition to the educational benefits of these structures, they offer young Muslims the opportunity to rub shoulders with Christians and members of other minorities. Indeed, it was in one of these schools that the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinna, was educated. The man, who is revered as the nation’s founder, also placed his own children in Christian schools.
These schools also ensured that the Christians had well-educated elites capable of rising to the highest offices of the state. This was the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian, and Minister for Minorities, who was assassinated on February 9, 2011. The Ministry of Minorities has since been abolished during Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister, so that there is no longer a single non-Muslim at the top of the administration.
Islamism Makes Money!
A former star cricketer and willing critic of Islamists, Imran Khan doesn’t look like a bearded man intent on wiping out minorities, who have a rather positive impact on Pakistani society. But faced with a fall in popularity, he needed to pledge his support to conservatives, in particular by coming out in favor of the anti-blasphemy law. This political coup reveals the evil that is eating away at Pakistani society, not so much the cynicism of politicians—which country is spared?—but rather the pervasiveness of radical Islamists. No politician can ignore them, and they influence the whole of society.
Warlike Islamism is being woven into the brains of young children at a very early age in school. The history of Pakistan has been rewritten in school textbooks, giving pride of place to slave-owning Muslim conquerors. Hindus, on the other hand, are portrayed as evil and brutal, and followers of other minority religions, notably Christians, are described as “infidels.” All students, regardless of their religious affiliation, are required to learn and recite by heart: “I am Pakistani. I am a Muslim. Pakistanis are Muslims.”
More generally, Muslims’ contempt for all other communities is expressed in a thousand and one ways on a daily basis. Naeem Yousaf Gill, Director of the Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan (CNJP), warns that it is difficult to grasp the extent of this discrimination against non-Muslims, so he illustrates it with a number of examples. His Commission comes from the local Catholic Church and is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its work in defense of Pakistani Christians.
In a series of documents devoted to discrimination in the year 2021-2022, the Commission lists hundreds of incidents against Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, all of whom are considered subhuman. This litany includes acts of violence and discrimination covering a broad spectrum.
For example, the case of Riaz Gill, a competent employee who was promoted to director of his hospital in Karachi. He immediately received death threats from his colleagues. Petty thugs were paid to follow him home and warn him that he and his family would be in serious trouble if he did not give up his position, as it was intolerable for a Christian to lead Muslims. Wearily, Riaz Gill returned to his previous position. But the pressure continued, until he handed in his resignation.
In another typical case reported by the Commission, a Muslim riding his motorcycle past a church square complained that he had been dirtied by two young Christians sweeping the area. He returned with an angry troop of sixty men, brandishing cricket sticks and iron bars. They beat up the family of the two young men, including women and children.
Another series of facts denounces the treatment of young Christian women. It commonly happens that a Christian woman escapes an attempted rape, denounces her attacker, only to discover that a crowd forms to defend her assailant. The question of the safety of young Christian women represents a painful challenge. They know they risk being seen as easy victims for sexual predators. They can be abducted, “converted” and then forcibly “married.” Cases of this kind abound. Maira Shabbaz, who was abducted at the age of 13 and managed to escape from her attacker, is a case in point. In the majority of cases, the parents of these young girls are distraught and afraid to lodge a complaint with the police, lest it be turned against them. The CNJP points out that in 90% of cases, the aggressors divorce their “wives” within the year. More often than not, they had at least one other wife at the time of the incident, wives that are much older than the girls they take in this way.
Martyrs of the 21st Century
In 2021, Abida, 26, and Sajida, 28, two Christian sisters living in the Makhan district, on the outskirts of Lahore, were harassed and then abducted by Muslims. They were found dead, their throats slit, in sacks, abandoned in a canal, probably because they had refused forced marriage and conversion.
A multitude of other less dramatic examples are symptomatic of the sickly aversion many Pakistanis feel towards people of other religions. Also, during the year under review, a Hindu family was beaten up for filling their water bottles at a tap in front of a mosque.
The hundreds of cases recorded show that ill-treatment does not come directly from the administration. Ordinary Pakistanis, in the face of annoyance or simply to get what they want—land, a wife, revenge—believe they have the right to attack the “lower castes.” But if the authorities are not the source of these exactions, they are no less deficient in restoring justice.
The Pakistani administration, which is fighting Taliban terrorists on its own soil, is clearly reluctant to tackle the ordinary Islamism that is blighting relations between its citizens. “This is a fundamental weakness that threatens society as a whole,” warns Babar Ayaz, journalist and author of What’s wrong with Pakistan (Hay House Inc.). A Muslim himself, he notes that the Islamic Republic was not part of the project of the country’s founders. He also fears that it will inevitably lead to chaos and ruin, given the profound religious differences that exist in his country. In particular, he notes that while the majority of Pakistanis unequivocally condemn jihad and terrorism, the same cannot be said of the Ulemas, who prefer to attack the Pakistani authorities, accusing them in particular of being pro-American. Few of them openly condemn extremist violence. Under these conditions, he questions the interest of his country in continuing to train more Ulemas than doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Wishing for a separation between religion and state, Ayaz notes that the Pakistani Parliament is instead constrained by religious issues: “Parliament should be free to debate religious issues, and not have to declare itself Muslim if we want to separate religion and state. This is crucial if we are to get the evil genie of Islamism back in the bottle,” he writes.
This is all the more crucial as Pakistan is going through a period of crisis which does not bode well for the minorities living there. Experience shows that they are the first to suffer. Economically, the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the international context is not helping matters. On the political front, the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the destruction of his party, the PTI, demonstrate the feverishness of the current administration, which feared his return to the political scene. His still numerous supporters are likely to revolt, raising the risk of civil war.
Despised, living in a poorly built country on the brink of collapse since its creation, Pakistan’s Christians should probably represent an anemic community by human logic. But this is not the case, Mgr Shukardin, Bishop of Hyderabad, assures us: “The churches are full at weekend celebrations and during the high holidays. The people are proud of their faith and the Church is the great source of their faith, and it is source of encouragement for them.” Asked about the strange dynamism of his Church, Archbishop Shaw of Lahore replied, “I don’t know if the environment for Christians in Pakistan is improving, but I do know that we are improving our ability to adapt to the situation!”
ACN in Pakistan
Last year, the CAN spent 1.2 million euros on projects in Pakistan. This sum was spent on some sixty projects at the service of the Catholic Church in Pakistan. The construction of a church in Chakwal, the training of priests and catechists. There are also—among other initiatives—educational campaigns for young girls initiated by the Church and supported by the ACN.
The high-profile release of Asia Bibi in 2019 may have raised hopes that recourse to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law would diminish, but the opposite is happening. On January 17, 2023, Parliament raised the minimum prison sentence for “blasphemy offenses” to 10 years.
ACN Religious Freedom Report 2023
62.5% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is seriously violated, warns ACN, which published the 16th edition of its Religious Freedom Report on June 22. Since the previous report in 2021, the situation has deteriorated significantly in 47 of the 196 countries studied.
Africa is the continent most affected by violations of religious freedom. The main cause, in addition to poverty and civil war, is the expansion of Islamist terrorist groups.
In Asia, ethno-religious nationalist powers instrumentalize religion for political ends through anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that oppress religious minorities.
Faced with these facts, ACN reiterates the vital importance of upholding the right to religious freedom, as an essential condition for world peace. It urges public authorities and citizens alike not to “turn a blind eye” to religious persecution. It will continue to provide information and practical help to victims of religious persecution through its work in 128 countries.
Sylvain Dorient is a journalist for ACN-France. This article appears through the courtesy of La Nef.