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 over 242 million people, according to a 2022 U.S. government estimate. Pakistan has a majority Muslim population, with Christians comprising under 2 percent of the population. Most of the Christians in Pakistan are Protestant (numbering approximately 2.5 million) while Catholics comprise the second largest group of Christians (at around 1.1 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. Laws against blasphemy, 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 a statistic cited by NGO Open Doors USA, out of 1,550 blasphemy accusations since 1986, 238, or 15 percent of the accused were Christians, although Christians constitute less than 2 percent of the population. Many blasphemy cases against Christians are motivated by personal disputes that are exacerbated by tribal and ethnic differences, and then become catalysts for widespread religio-political conflict.

The recent and well-known case against Aasiya Noreen, a Christian woman known to the international community as Asia Bibi, exemplifies this pattern. In June 2009, Asia Bibi’s Muslim coworkers accused her of blasphemy after a workplace dispute. Bibi had defended her Christianity after her coworkers slurred her for her religion. Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 and spent the next eight years on death row, often in solitary confinement. In 2018, at the end of a years-long appeals process, Bibi was acquitted by Pakistan’s supreme court, but the extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party opposed her release, organizing violent demonstrations and calling for rebellion against the government and the army. The government caved to several of the TLP’s demands, permitting a challenge to Bibi’s acquittal. Finally, in January 2019, Bibi’s acquittal was upheld, and Bibi joined her family in asylum in Canada. In 2020 and in 2021, several Christians were acquitted of blasphemy charges due to lack of evidence after suffering years of imprisonment on death row. Shortly after his appointment as special representative on religious harmony in 2020 by Prime Minister Imran Khan, Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi acknowledged the abuse of blasphemy laws and stated that 100 of 104 individuals had been cleared of blasphemy charges. However, in some instances, government officials who have spoken against the blasphemy laws and lawyers who have defended individuals charged with blasphemy have been murdered or have faced violent intimidation

While not required to participate in Islamic studies, in practice, many Christian students attending public schools have no alternative. Churches and Christian schools have been set on fire or attacked. In 2013, thousands of people riled by an accusation of blasphemy against a Christian man burned over 170 homes and two churches in a Christian neighborhood in Lahore. In 2017, 106 Muslims accused of involvement in the attack were acquitted in court. The government largely ignores violence against Christians, and thus enables sectarian attacks and societal discrimination. Additionally, as the government pursues a policy of appeasement towards extremist Islamic groups and Pakistan’s army, in particular, supports certain extremist groups to achieve political ends, religious minorities face a volatile political landscape and eroded religious freedoms. 

Many Christians are poor and pushed to the margins of society in Pakistan. For example, Christian men comprise the vast majority of the nation’s sanitation workforce and are often forced to complete unsafe maintenance in sewer lines, both because Muslims are reluctant to engage in “unclean” work and because Christians are viewed as an expendable source of labor. Young women of minority religions face high risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage, often as part of a socially-sanctioned strategy to force their conversion to Islam. Open Doors USA estimates that during its 2020 and 2021 reporting periods, at least 1000 Christian women were forced to marry non-Christians. In 2021, parliament rejected a draft bill that would have established safeguards against forced conversions, and consequently deterred religiously-motivated forced marriages.

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 increase their visibility in the nation through robust use of Christian media. For example, the Pakistan Christian Post, established in 2001, has a large online presence and effectively contests political space in Pakistan, drawing attention to concerns such as religious discrimination in educational institutions and to the ignored patriotism of Christians during the Partition. Through sustained effort, Christian media has highlighted Christian contributions to national welfare and has raised awareness among Muslims of positive leadership by present and former Christian leaders. 

International 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 and 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 works to promote democracy, increase voter participation, and highlight institutional discrimination. Some Christian leaders have attempted to gain support from the state by praising religious harmony under Imran Khan's administration and supporting governmental aspirations to control Indian-administered Kashmir. 

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. In January 2022, after gunmen in Peshawar shot two priests of the Church of Pakistan, killing one, Christian bystanders chanted “Long Live Jesus Christ” while carrying the victim’s body from the location of the shooting. Bishop Azad Marshall, leader of the Church of Pakistan, stated on social media: “We demand justice and protection of Christians from the Government of Pakistan.”

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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.