Pakistan and Afghanistan

Christians in Pakistan, about 2 percent of the population, suffer heavily from discrimination, the pressure of religious conversion, and abuses connected with the country’s draconian blasphemy law. Persecution comes from both regime and society. Founded in 1947, Pakistan was declared an Islamic republic in its first constitution in 1956 and saw the sharp growth of heavily Islamist laws beginning in the 1970s—a legal framework that encourages the maltreatment of Christians as well as of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims. 

In part, the maltreatment of Christians takes place through discrimination. The majority of Pakistani Christians are Protestant, hailing from Punjab, and low-caste, consigned to menial jobs in the sanitation industry and as domestic staff. A smaller community of Catholics are middle-class. Low-caste Christians suffer heavy discrimination, in which caste identity and religious membership reinforce each other; women are treated especially poorly. 

Christians are also subject to forced conversions. An estimated 1,800 cases per year are reported of Christian girls who are kidnapped and forced to “convert” and “marry” their Muslim captors. Christians, like Muslims, are regularly prosecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which was revised in 1991 to carry the death penalty. The case of Asia Bibi, a young Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, was internationally protested. While her death sentence has not yet been approved by the superior court, she remains in prison. Two government officials were assassinated for speaking out on her behalf and against the blasphemy law: Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. 

The Christian community in Pakistan has responded actively to persecution through a wide array of strategies, enabled by a political system that features open contestation despite its many repressive laws. Among their other responses, Pakistani Christians stand out for their use of the media—to bring attention to injustices that Christians face, to strengthen their influence with political parties, to gain sympathy with Muslims, to counteract their muted role in school textbooks and official historical narratives, and to bring international attention to their plight (a combination of associational and confrontational strategies). 

Pakistani Christians have also sought to build bridges with Muslims, including through interreligious dialogue, promoting harmony in the slums, and carrying out conflict resolution (strategies of association).

The Christian Study Center in Rawalpindi, for example, assists churches in navigating their place in a Muslim state, seeks to build the nation of Pakistan based on interreligious harmony, and provides a place for uncensored debate and discussion. 

On the confrontational end, Christians in Pakistan have engaged in political protest and advocacy. One strategy has been to create political organizations that lobby the government to alter its policies or to address discrimination more actively. Another is to engage more directly in protest—rallies and marches—against injustices like kidnappings and false accusations under the blasphemy law. Especially creative has been “architectural protest,” such as the building of a cross 140 feet tall in Karachi. 

Whereas the constitution of Pakistan guarantees religious freedom while restricting it in practice, the constitution of Afghanistan does not allow it, and the government imposes a harsh form of sharia. Christians are largely driven behind closed doors, facing great danger in expressing their faith in any kind of public way. Though there has been no census since before 2001, it is estimated that there are 500 to 8,000 Christians in the country—a tiny community, all of whom are converts. Conversion carries the sentence of death. 

The major responses to persecution in Afghanistan are concealing identity and migration, both survivalist strategies. Some have continued evangelization at an individual or local level, at the risk of their lives. Among those who have emigrated, many have fled to India; there is a growing number of Afghan churches in New Delhi. 

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