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Artillery Row

Who hears the persecuted church?

Our leaders should take a firm stance on anti-Christian violence

Life is difficult as a Pakistani Christian. Technically, one has freedom of religion. In reality, one is just a vexatious complaint away from mob violence or state persecution.

As I write, a church is burning in Jaranwala in Punjab. Someone, it has been reported, has been accused of violating the Quran. We might not think this should be a crime to begin with. But even if we do, a crime demands due process, no? 

Not in Jaranwala. Rumours have been enough for a mob of irate Muslims to assault the church and harass Christians, with police officers being powerless or indifferent.

Alas, such extrajudicial violence is nothing new. This year, a man was lynched in a police station after being accused of desecrating pages of the Quran. “After lynching,” said a police spokesman, “They were still not satisfied and tried to burn his body.” In 2022, 80 people had to be arrested after a mob killed an alleged blasphemer and hung him from a tree. Two months earlier, a Sri Lankan national had been beaten to death and burned over similar charges. Onlookers were then seen taking selfies with his corpse.

You don’t have to be an alleged blasphemer yourself to be in the firing line. Salman Taseer was a businessman and politician who criticised Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. This was enough for one of his bodyguards to shoot him to death

Far from taking action against such unhinged vigilantism, Pakistan’s authorities have strengthened their blasphemy laws. Insulting Muhammad or Islam as a faith already carried the potential for a death sentence. This year, the Pakistan National Assembly added that insulting Muhammad’s wives, companions or relatives could be punished with ten years in jail.

Pakistan is far from being the only country where Christians are facing persecution. Christian women are allegedly being abducted in Egypt. Savage violence is being perpetrated against Nigerian Christians by Fulani herdsmen

What adds insult to injury is the all but serene indifference of the West

What adds insult to injury is the all but serene indifference of the West towards the suffering of believers in its traditional faith. The Jaranwala church attack has not hit the Western news, with the BBC’s “World” section finding time to mention Alec Baldwin’s film set shooting but not vigilante violence. One hopes, of course, that this will be rectified soon — but the murders of hundreds of Christians in Nigeria never left the religious press.

Granted, what are we supposed to do about it is a valid question. Well, Pakistan and Nigeria are both in the top three recipients of UK aid. If that doesn’t give us diplomatic leverage with which to demand stronger protection for the persecuted, as well as legal reforms, what does it give us? If we can’t convince them to resist mob violence and terrorism then it’s hard to know what we are going to achieve.

Within the UK, we should also treat this dreadful violence as a sobering reminder not to indulge in excessive conciliation in the face of affronted religious feelings. That doesn’t mean we have to be enthusiastically offensive. But it means we should defend citizens who face threats over real and alleged incidents of blasphemy — like the teacher who was forced into hiding in Batley for showing his students a drawing of Muhammad, or the students in Wakefield who, outrageously, were suspended and condemned for inadvertently scuffing a copy of the Quran. We have an understandable instinct towards soothing displeasure from religious minorities, assuming it expresses the predicament of the underprivileged. But we can see how minorities are treated in Pakistan when hot censorious emotions are allowed to run riot. Such violent rancour deserves no understanding.

British politicians should demand that the Pakistani authorities step in to stop the violence in Jaranwala. I don’t know if blasphemy was committed against a copy of the Quran. But if burning a church doesn’t count as blasphemous then I don’t know what does.

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