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
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
Christians in Pakistan are not passive recipients of discrimination but respond in multiple ways to the challenges they encounter. While the strategies they utilize vary, in general the community is socially, theologically, and politically assertive.
Although Christians in Pakistan have very little political power, they actively utilize Christian media to increase visibility in the nation. The Pakistan Christian Post, for example, established in 2001, has a large online presence and is a dominant player in contesting political space in Pakistan. Common themes are discriminatory educational practices such as biased textbooks as well as the oft ignored role of Christians in Partition. Because the state does not memorialize Christian figures, the community fulfills this responsibility through media. Articles about Christian leaders also have political impact. Sustained efforts to highlight Christian contributions to Pakistan raise awareness among Muslims of Christian leaders, both historical and contemporary.
Media also plays a role in Christian outreach and engagement with the diaspora in Canada, England, and the United States. This builds strong international networks that raise awareness of Christian persecution and encourages financial support for Christian institutions in Pakistan. Challenging the government and criticizing Islamic laws/practices are dangerous activities in Pakistan, and often lead to assaults and threats that spread fear among Christian activists. In this context, international support is immensely useful because the diaspora can make demands of the Pakistani government without fear of reprisal. International networks also enable Christians to acquire support for local challenges, including legal services for persecuted Christians.
Christians have also responded to persecution by initiating dialogue with Muslim friends, neighbors, and colleagues—at both academic and grass-roots levels. A pertinent example of academic dialogue is the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi. The center was established in 1967 as an interfaith institution rooted in the ecumenical tradition and assists churches in negotiating their role in a Muslim state and in enhancing Muslim-Christian relations. The mission of the center encourages Muslim-Christian dialogue, fosters mutual understanding, and promotes cooperation in citizenship and nation-building. Other smaller organizations engage dialogue at a grass roots level. The National Peace Council for Interfaith Harmony of Pakistan, for example, formed through an alliance of Protestant and Catholic churches, serves to promote peace and understanding in slums where persecution is most pronounced.
Christians also work through the political system to achieve their goals. The Christian political voice in Pakistan is small but powerful and equally potent in both middle and lower-class communities. There are several political organizations that work to redress various issues such as kidnappings, forced conversions, and false accusations under the Blasphemy Law. The largest such organization is the Pakistan Christian Congress, which works to safeguard the social, religious and political rights of Christians. The party is active in promoting democracy, increasing voter participation, and highlighting institutional discrimination.
There are also many Christian institutions that serve the underprivileged in Pakistan, including working for social justice and serving other religious minorities. Though it is not their primary purpose, these organizations function to raise Christian visibility and political capital. For example, it is the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic organization, that most frequently raises awareness of Hindu discrimination and caste violence in the media. Such services build trust between minority communities so they can mobilize support to face common challenges together.
In addition to forming political organizations and parties, Christians are also assertive in public protest. At different times, current events have ignited Christians to seek political redress for social grievances. For example, when Christian schools were nationalized in 1977, Christians protested en masse to protect church property and autonomy. Christians have also protested against a government proposal to include religion on national identity cards, and they organize regular protests to underscore the abuses of the Blasphemy Law. The most infamous protest against the Blasphemy Law was the public suicide of Catholic bishop John Joseph, who shot himself on May 6, 1998.
Assertive architecture is a relatively new form of protest emerging in urban areas in Pakistan. In 2013, Pervez Henry Gill, an entrepreneur, started a project to build the largest cross in Karachi in a bustling neighborhood near a Christian cemetery. The cross stands over 140 feet tall and the cross bar is 42 feet in length. Gill wants the cross to function as a symbol of hope for the shrinking Christian community. A second form of architectural protest is prevalent in urban slums where charismatic and evangelical churches are growing quickly and where it is the norm for churches not to use overtly Christian symbols or language, to prevent the cross from competing with the minaret. But new churches are constructing crosses that are large, brightly colored, and purposely raised higher than the local minaret. This is a bold form of political assertiveness especially from this segment of society that has neither power nor money.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Sara Singha and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.