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Artillery Row

The persecution of Christians

Blasphemy laws are making the lives of religious minorities impossible

According to the charity Open Doors, there are 4.2 million Christians in Pakistan — 1.8 per cent of the country’s population of more than 229 million. Pakistani Christians have always been treated like second class citizens, and accusations of blasphemy against them are commonplace. They have faced a major spike in persecution in recent weeks, however. On 16 August, Muslim mobs went on the rampage, burning multiple churches and vandalising homes in Jaranwala (Punjab), following the circulation of claims Christian men had torn pages from the Quran (for which there have been two arrests). The Pakistani authorities have made over 100 arrests for the targeting of Christians and their places of worship. Despite a subsidence in violence, tensions remain high with news of a Christian priest being shot and wounded only last week. For fear of further reprisals, around 2,500 Christians were forced to abandon their homes. Videos on social media show angry mobs destroying Christian buildings whilst police appear to look on. During the attacks in Jaranwala, protestors were heard to repeat chants in favour of the hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Paramilitaries came in to restore calm following last month’s rampage, which eyewitnesses say involved mobs carrying iron rods and knives, whilst setting fire to houses and churches in their wake. Does the West care about the plight of Pakistani Christians?

Perhaps the most poignant symbol of the recent siege against Pakistan’s Christians are the messages etched in ash on the burnt walls of the Salvation Army Church in Jaranwala, built over a hundred years ago in 1904: “Jesus is the light of the world” and “we want religious freedom”. Religious freedom is a scarce commodity in a country where the penal code sets punishments for “blasphemy”, where girls of minority faiths (Christian, Hindu and Sikh) are frequently abducted, converted and married off to their abductors, and influential pro-blasphemy religious clerics openly promote hatred against minority religions. In its 2020 annual report, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted the desperate plight of minority faiths in Pakistan. It referred to the systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and the failure to address forced conversions to Islam of religious minorities including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The report described the febrile environment as one with “severely restricted religious freedom”.

Three Hindu sisters were forced to convert and marry their abductors

Some British parliamentarians have been raising the plight of Pakistani Christians. On 16 August, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Fiona Bruce MP tweeted, “I am horrified to learn of the violent attacks against Christians in #Jaranwala, Punjab, today.” In fact, the All-Party-Parliamentary Group (APPG) for FoRB (for which Bruce is Vice Chair) has been flagging concerns for some time. In 2016, it published a series of recommendations, including a suggested review of the Home Office’s asylum process for Pakistani Christians and other minorities escaping persecution. In 2021, the APPG for Pakistani Minorities published its report Abductions, Forced Conversions, and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Women and Girls in Pakistan, which suggested up to 1,000 religious minority women and girls were victims annually, with a particular problem in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. Earlier this year, it was reported that three Hindu sisters from Sindh were forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors.

The picture for Pakistani minorities is indeed bleak, but some facing persecution at the hands of religious extremists have managed to escape. A video went viral back in 2021 of Tabitha Nazir Gill, a Christian nurse accused of “blasphemy”, being savagely beaten by colleagues. She and her family are thankfully now safe somewhere in North America, though for security reasons the country name cannot be disclosed. Obtaining religious freedom in the West, as in the cases of Gill and Asia Bibi, at least provides some hope for Pakistani Christians living in fear, especially those who will now be picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Jaranwala.

Dr Joel Veldkamp is Head of International Communications for Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an NGO that helps victims of religiously motivated violence. He told me CSI was able to respond to the recent attack on Christians in Jaranwala within a matter of hours — coming to the aid of those driven from their homes by mobs, thanks to “courageous and trusted” partners on the ground.

Veldkamp was clear on the root cause of the problem, saying: “These attacks grow directly out of the climate of terror created by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, where mere accusations have the power to put people in prison and provoke mob violence, especially against Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities. Western states should encourage Pakistan to stop enforcing these laws, and should not give any support to efforts led by Muslim states in international forums to promote criminalization of blasphemy.”

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland, says of the situation, “There should be no second-class citizens in Pakistan. Everyone should be protected under the law. This includes fair and equal application of laws between the majority and minority populations. We need this to prevent another incident like the one in Jaranwala.”

Veteran human rights campaigner Lord Alton of Liverpool is Vice Chair of the APPG for FoRB. He told me, “The most appropriate way for the British Government to help the terrified Christian community in Jaranwala will be to provide urgently needed humanitarian aid, as a gesture of solidarity with the victims, and a message to the perpetrators of violence that the British people and government will not stand by and watch them destroy peaceful lives.

He went on, “In other words, as the great Martin Luther King once said, ‘When the evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.’”

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