Pakistan

The constitution of Pakistan, as well as other laws, place restrictions on religious freedom. There are laws against blasphemy, which subject individuals to death sentences for “defiling Prophet Muhammad,” to life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” as well as to prison sentences for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Blasphemy laws disproportionately affect minorities such as Ahmadis, Shias and Christians. Many blasphemy cases against Christians are often motivated by personal disputes that are exacerbated by tribal and ethnic differences.

Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Pakistan 

Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia

Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University

Christian Demographics

The current population of Pakistan is just over 188 million people. It has a majority Muslim population, with Christians comprising approximately 2 percent of the population. Most of the Christians in Pakistan are Protestant (numbering approximately 2.3 million) while Catholics comprise the second largest group of Christians (at just over 1 million).

History of the Pakistani Christian Community

Historical tradition attributes Christianity in Pakistan to the first century AD, by way of the apostle Thomas. At one point, churches on the Indian subcontinent may even have come under the control of the Eastern Church (Persia), but declined by the sixteenth century. It was not until the arrival of the British  in the Punjab in the nineteenth century that Christianity experienced a resurgence. The majority of new converts were from a low-caste Hindu background hoping to escape caste-based discrimination. Others were converts from Islam or Buddhism. When Pakistan and India gained independence in 1947, many Christians left the Punjab to make way for Muslim refugees from India while others made a conscious decision to join Pakistan. Though the establishment of Pakistan is largely thought of as a Muslim state, its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed in 1947 that his  fellow citizens, “may belong to any religion or caste or creed— that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” However, Pakistan adopted its first constitution in 1956 identifying it as an Islamic republic, and its laws and politics have reflected this identity ever since.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

The constitution of Pakistan, as well as other laws, place restrictions on religious freedom. There are laws against blasphemy, which subject individuals to death sentences for “defiling Prophet Muhammad,” to life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” as well as to prison sentences for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Blasphemy laws disproportionately affect minorities such as Ahmadis, Shias and Christians. According to the BBC, “Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted for desecrating the Koran or blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad, although experts say most accusations are fuelled by personal disputes.” Many blasphemy cases against Christians are often motivated by personal disputes that are exacerbated by tribal and ethnic differences. At least two prominent cases have resulted in Christians having their sentences commuted because a lack of concrete evidence.  However, in some instances, government officials who have spoken against the blasphemy laws have been murdered. While not required to participate in Islamic studies, in practice, many Christian students attending public schools have no alternative. Several churches and Christian schools have been set on fire or attacked. Many Christians are poor and pushed to the margins of society in Pakistan. Violence against Christians is largely ignored by the government.


A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Pakistan

Sara Singha, Ph.D., Georgetown University

Christians comprise 2 percent of the total population of Pakistan. A vibrant and robust community, there is a Christian presence in each province of the country. The largest single denomination is the Roman Catholic Church with approximately one third of the total population.[1] Protestant denominations include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Baptists, Brethren, Church of Christ, Church of St. Thomas, the Evangelical Church, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Three interrelated forms of discrimination affect the dynamics between Pakistani Christians and the majority Muslim population: institutional, societal, and religious. Institutional discrimination results in both economic and occupational disadvantages for many Christians. As such, the Christian community in Pakistan is replete with socio-economic and class distinctions. While middle-class Christians are employed in civil service, education, or in the medical field, low-income Christians work menial jobs in the sanitation industry or as sweepers. Societal discrimination is exacerbated by sanitation work which carries a severe social stigma resulting in exclusion and persecution. Religious discrimination is manifest in three ways: through the suppression of missionary activity, forced conversion, and false accusations of blasphemy.

The Christian community in Pakistan is both politically and social active. Three Christian responses to persecution are explored in this paper: political, social, and theological. In the past decade in Pakistan, radical groups have targeted churches, Christian villages, and prominent political leaders. Politically, Christians are not passive. Christian leaders in major cities such as Karachi and Lahore have organized rallies and marches to protest various forms of persecution and violence against the community. The most infamous protest was the public suicide of Catholic bishop John Joseph who shot himself on May 6, 1998 inside a courthouse in Sahiwal to protest the Blasphemy Law.[2] Yet, in rural areas and urban slums, Christians also build networks and lobby their local leaders to raise awareness of the violence and persecution they often encounter. Socially, Christian leaders and the laity are active in promoting peace and goodwill among their Muslim neighbors. There are many joint efforts with Muslim organizations in both rural areas and urban slums to safeguard young women, to promote education, and resolve shared challenges such as lack of clean water and sanitation. Theologically, Christian churches are engaged in missionary work. Seminaries are flourishing in both Punjab and Sindh and recently, among Protestants, women are taking a more active role in churches as prayer leaders, teachers, and ‘unofficial’ pastors. Interfaith work is strong in pockets—in urban centers it is not uncommon to witness dialogue projects between mosques and churches and collaborative efforts between imams and pastors.

In contrast to Pakistan, the Christians in Afghanistan face a very different set of challenges. The government has not conducted a national census in decades, hence, reliable data on religious demography is difficult to obtain. The 2012 Afghanistan Religious Freedom Report lists the Christian population somewhere between “500 and 8000 persons.”[3] The constitution and policies restrict religious freedom for non-Muslims and the government generally enforces such laws. The Afghani constitution declares Islam as the state religion and also notes that, “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”[4] The majority of Afghani Christians are converts from Islam, an act which is constitutionally punishable by death. This paper will consider the many challenges facing these Christian converts. Considered ‘apostates,’ the Afghani government offers no legal aid for converts who face persecution, the loss of land and inheritance, as well as termination of employment. Because of increased persecution, many Christians are migrating to India. In the past five years, between 200 and 250 Afghan Christians have settled in Delhi and founded the Afghan Church of New Delhi. This paper will also explore Christian responses to rising persecution in Afghanistan such as veiling identity and worshiping in secret for fear of reprisal. There are currently no recognized public churches in the country.


[1] David B. Barrett ed., World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World 1900-2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 543.

[2] Linda Walbridge, Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of Bishop John Joseph. (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

[3] Afghanistan 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, accessible from: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/208634.pdf

[4] Ibid, 3.