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Georg Evers {*}

Under Pressure

Pakistan and its Religious Minorities

 

From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 31/2011, P. 426-430
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    Islamist movements gain more and more influence in Pakistan. This has also an effect on the situation of religious minorities, who suffer inter alia under the anti-blasphemy legislation. Efforts to conduct a dialogue between Christians and Muslims have a hard time in such a situation.

 

Since its founding more than 60 years ago, Pakistan remained always a country where the real power was in the hands of the military. The second center of power was and is the military intelligence service (ISI = Inter Services Intelligence), which in the background has decisively determined the politics of Pakistan. The periods in which democratically elected governments ruled the country were always short lived. In the elections of 2007, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto came out as the clear winner, but due to the deadly attack to which she fell victim in December 2007, the new government lacked a strong leader. President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto, who took over the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party and was elected president, is regarded as a weak politician, because he sees himself exposed to allegations of corruption for years. He now enjoys immunity only through his political office.

It was not exactly a sign of strength of Pakistan's central government that it in February 2009 in an agreement with the radical Islamic Taliban consented to the introduction of sharia law in the Swat valley in the northwest province. In the agreement it says, "All laws which are contrary to the divine Islamic Sharia law will be abolished, and under the new judiciary only the Sharia is brought into force." As soon as the government had given free rein to the Taliban, they realized with all their might their ideas of a polity that is exclusively determined by Sharia.

The cultural revolution launched by the Taliban took place just in the Swat Valley, which is so rich in cultural treasures, because in the 8th century it has been a center of Buddhist monastic life and Buddhist art. As already practiced in the destruction of the great Buddha statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban began soon to destroy systematically the many testimonies of Buddhist life in this region, and so invaluable ancient cultural artifacts have been destroyed. But their destructive frenzy was also directed against the products of modern communication technology such as television, CDs and other technical devices. Linked to this were the measures against women and girls: they were forced to wear burkas and prohibited to leave their houses without a male escort or to attend school.

It took a long time until the sympathizers of the Taliban in the military and the intelligence became clearly aware of the full extent of the Islamization or Talibanization implemented by the Taliban in the Swat valley, and the government in Islamabad was forced to make a radical change and to break by military force the rule of the Taliban in the Swat valley. The fierce fighting resulted in the destruction of many villages and towns, thousands of civilians lost their belongings and more than 300.000 fled inland. The reaction of the Taliban was not long in coming. In early October 2009 they launched a series of attacks.

The first target was an office of the World Food Programme of the United Nations in the capital Islamabad. What shortly afterwards followed was an attack on a bazaar in Peshawar, with many deaths among the civilian population. A spectacular post in the Taliban's list of acts of violence was on 10 October 2009 the attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. Even though the attackers lost their lives after they had killed some senior officers, their plot revealed that all state organs, civil administration, but also the so highly esteemed Pakistani military are always vulnerable. This became again obvious, when on 22 Mai May 2011 the Air Force Base Mehran in Karachi was the target of a terrorist commando of the Taliban. The Taliban described this attack as an act of revenge for the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

 


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The attack aroused again speculation about the infiltration of parts of the Pakistani military by the Taliban or Al Qaeda, because the assailants had obviously a good knowledge of the terrain, and their undetected intrusion into the base aroused the suspicion that they might have got internal support. This suspicion was confirmed when, on 29 May 2011, the journalist Saleem Shahzad was found murdered. By his reporting on the cooperation of Pakistan's ISI with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, he had made this powerful organization an enemy.

In official statements, the government of President Zardari said on several occasions that it condemns the violence of the Taliban and other Islamist terrorists and wants to fight it with military and legal means. But it sounded a bit helpless, when the president in a speech on 9 November 2010, on the occasion of the 132nd anniversary of the national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, referred to his intellectual heritage in order to find a way out of the current crisis. In his speech, Zardari deplored that it was disastrous that in the country, which according to Iqbal's ideas should be a home for all residents of whatever faith, extremists and radical militant forces ruthlessly misused Islam for their own purposes, in order to impose their intolerant agenda to the people. The extremists and militants had rejected the Constitution, the rule of law and democratic institutions, in order to take power in the name of religion. This cannot and should not be allowed. The interpretation of Islamic teachings should not be left to any individual or group.

With a view to the ideas - developed by Iqbal and realized by Muhammad Ali Jinnah - of a Pakistan that will be both a home for Muslims and for members of other religions, there are a number of similar voices of intellectuals who critically comment that Pakistan was currently in a deplorable condition, because the governmental, military, civil and religious institutions had scarcely something to do with the ideal outlined here. Abroad there is growing concern that Pakistan, a country that, after all, has an arsenal of nuclear weapons at its disposal, will be weakened to the point that the Taliban could succeed in gaining control over the nuclear weapons of the country. But even more dangerous is the other version which in recent times proves to be more likely, namely that the radical Islamist ideas infect the entire country and increasingly spread among the judiciary, military and politics.

The anti-blasphemy laws, which have been more and more tightened since 1992, have strongly impaired the social climate and the coexistence of people of different religions in the country. These laws are very often abused to practice revenge in personal disputes and enmities, and to settle open accounts. This affects all strata of Pakistani society. In the last decade, 793 people were accused of blasphemy, 52 percent of them were Muslims, 34 percent followers of the Ahmadiyya, 12 percent Christians, and 1 percent Hindus. Even though two thirds of the indictments apply to Muslims, if one continues to class the members of the Ahmadiyya as belonging to Islam, the members of minorities are disproportionately affected in view of the majorities in the population. Indictments of violating the anti-blasphemy laws against members of minority groups lead often to the fact that not only the directly affected individuals but also their communities are the target of attacks and reprisals.

In the case of accusations of blasphemy against Christians, there are often attacks against the houses of their relatives, the destruction of churches and attacks against people. Because of the many negative effects of the anti-blasphemy laws there have been repeatedly demands in Pakistan and abroad to completely abolish or at least to mitigate them. Various Pakistani governments have tried to seize these demands, but they always flinched from doing it, due to the protests of radical Islamist groups. The extent of their influence has become obvious, when in early January 2011 the governor of the province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was murdered by a member of his personal security. The perpetrator, who was celebrated by the Muslim majority, but also by official bodies as a hero, stated that his deed was motivated by the attempt to prevent the success of the efforts of the Governor to abolish the anti-blasphemy laws.

 

A new Policy Paper on Religious Freedom

Only a little later, in March 2011, the Catholic minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in his official car in Islamabad. Shahbaz Bhatti, too, had advocated the abolition of the anti-blasphemy laws. The radical Islamic group "Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan," the umbrella organization of several militant Islamist groups, took the "responsibility" for this murder, which was like a public execution. Shahbaz Bhatti was the founder of "All Pakistan Minorities Alliance" and the "Christian Liberation Front," which advocates the interests of religious minorities in the country. In his obituary, the archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence Saldanha, described Bhatti as an outstanding leader of the Catholic Church of Pakistan, who by his exemplary dedication and willingness to make sacrifices had campaigned for the interests of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Both the murder of Bhatti and of the governor Salman Taseer show that the radical Islamist forces seek to prevent forcibly all efforts to abolish or to change the anti-blasphemy laws. At first it seemed as if the Pakistani government, in response to the assassination of Bhatti, would take decidedly action against the radical Islamist groups, and take measures to implement a better protection of the religious minorities in the country through changes in its religious policy.

 


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End of March 2011 the government presented to the UN Human Rights Council a new policy paper on freedom of religion and freedom of expression where it announced to seek the dialogue with religious communities to promote a culture of tolerance and peace at all levels.

What was new in this document was that with regard to human rights religious freedom had the same status as freedom of expression. This was both nationally and internationally seen as a positive innovation, since the Pakistani government had, with regard to the blasphemy laws, treated every defamation of religion as a special offense that could not be connected with the right to freedom of expression. But then in late June 2011 the government surprisingly ordered the dissolution of the Ministry for Religious Minorities. The functions of the ministry should be decentralized and assigned to the various provinces.

The religious minorities responded with protests against this decision. Shabhaz Bhatti's brother Paul Bhatti was particularly affected: as Special Advisor to the Prime Minister in matters of religious minorities, he should virtually follow his brother as head of the Ministry of minorities. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani tried to reassure by announcing stronger measures to protect the religious minorities. But misunderstanding and confusion were then triggered by his announcement to establish in a new form the just dissolved Ministry of Religious Minorities.

Also from abroad, many and diverse demands were made to abolish the anti-blasphemy laws. In early September 2009, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches published a "Statement on the misuse of the Blasphemy Law and the security of religious minorities in Pakistan." One deplores in it that the abuse of these laws in Pakistan has repeatedly led to physical violence and destruction of property and to the loss of lives among the Christian minority. One deplores further the attacks against the Christian minority in recent times.

In October 2009, a petition was submitted to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. It was signed by nearly 10.000 people and calls on the UN authority to intervene with the Pakistani government, because the anti-blasphemy laws would often be abused to discriminate ethnic and religious minorities. In October 2009 President Ali Zardari had, on the occasion of his visit of Italy, an audience with Benedict XVI in the Vatican. Here the pope brought up the problems of religious minorities that are threatened by the anti-blasphemy laws and the many acts of violence in recent months and feel insufficiently protected by the State. Also on other occasions, most recently in January 2011, Benedict XVI has called on the government of Pakistan to abolish the articles of the anti-blasphemy law or to change them.

 

Civil Rights of Religious Minorities are Restricted

The 2.5 million Christians in Pakistan feel like "second class citizens" and increasingly hampered in the exercise of their religion and their civil rights. Since in 1985 the then President Zia-ul-Haq made amendments to the electoral law, in Pakistan there is no longer an equal universal suffrage for all citizens of the country. Only Muslims are entitled to vote in the strict sense of the word, whereas the members of religious minorities are allowed to vote only for the candidates from their own ranks. Here the number of the seats granted to the respective minorities is from the outset defined to four seats each for the Christians and four for the Hindus, and one seat each for members of the Ahmadiyya and the Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis.

For members of minority groups, this means a substantial restriction of their civil rights, which is rightly perceived by them as discrimination. During the flood disaster in July 2010, in the fight against the flood, in the province of Sindh the villages of the Christian minority were - compared to the rich Muslim landlords - deliberately discriminated and without state support left virtually to their own devices. A positive exception is the initiative of the Muslim MP Ijaz Virk, who in May 2011 made available 70.000 U.S. dollars for the repair of the by the flood destroyed Holy Rosary Church in Warispura in the diocese of Faisalabad.

On the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Pakistani bishops in Rome in June 2008 the then chairman of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, spoke of the fact that in recent years the situation of Catholics in the country has deteriorated severely. The Catholic Church had previously been esteemed and respected in the country, because of her activity in the educational, medical and social field. Today, conservative and especially Islamist groups tried to intimidate the Catholics by hostility, hatred and threats of violence.

Also the Protestant Bishop Samuel Azariah of the "Church of Pakistan," described with almost the same words the situation of Christian minorities, when he stated that in Pakistan religion is politically and ideologically misused and religious minorities in the country feel no longer safe. Christians in Pakistan are time and again the victim of violence.

 


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On 1 August 2009, e.g. a mob of 3.000 Muslim fanatics attacked the Christian Quarter of the city of Gojra and set fire to more than 50 houses and two churches. In addition to many injured, a family of eight that was trapped in its house became a victim of the fire. As a sign of mourning and protest, all the Christian schools in Pakistan were closed for one day.

On 8 June 2011 all seventy persons who were indicted for their involvement in the massacre were acquitted by the anti-terrorist court in Faisalabad. The court pleaded for acquittal, since it could not find witnesses for the prosecution. In the run-up to the court proceedings, the affected Christians had been so intimidated that they did not dare to take the witness stand against the Muslim perpetrators. Some of the Christians had left Goijra and had emigrated. Even the compensation promised by the government for the construction of new houses has largely failed to materialize.

The responsible local priest Yousaf Yaqub is trying to bring about an understanding between Christians and Muslims, but he emphasizes that his parishioners still have fear of further violent actions of Muslim radical groups, and that's why the the basis for an accomodation is missing. Police and military as well as the politicians let themselves be intimidated by the vociferous Islamist groups and are not willing or unable to assert themselves against the terror of violent groups.

In early September 2009 the Government introduced Islamic education as a compulsory school subject for all pupils up to the age of 16 years. The religious minorities have protested against it and demanded in turn that there must be also for Hindus, Sikhs and Christians the possibility of religious education in State schools. In connection with the fighting against the Taliban, the attacks against Christian institutions and individuals have increased in a frightening way. There have been mysterious deaths, as e.g. those of two young Christian men: they were arrested and accused of blasphemy, because they were supposed to have destroyed or polluted a copy of the Koran. According to the authorities they are supposed to have committed suicide in prison. The authorities have not allowed independent investigations of those deaths. It is characteristic of the inability of the Pakistani government and military to guarantee public security against the terrorist attacks of extreme Muslim groups, since all schools in the country, including the Christian private schools are obliged to take extensive safety measures for their facilities. For the public schools, the provincial government bears the not inconsiderable costs. Many private Christian schools, however, are overtaxed with the financing of these safety requirements. If they are unable to meet the requirements, these schools - as it already happened in some cases in Lahore - are closed by the government.

The case of the Catholic Asia Bibi, who was arrested in June 2009 in the town of Sheikhupura and in November 2010 sentenced to death for violating the anti-blasphemy laws, worries the Christians in Pakistan and worldwide. As someone who worked in the cleaning service, a job that is done by the lower social classes, she was denied access to fetch water from the common well. In the ensuing confrontation, she was accused of "insulting" Muhammad and the Koran. In talks with the journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet, Asia Bibi, who is illiterate, has rejected the charges of blasphemy and assured that she has respected throughout her life the Muslims and their religion. These talks have been published in Italy in the Mondadori publishing house as book, titled "Blasphema".

There have been many initiatives to revoke the death sentence against Asia Bibi and to prevent her execution. Shortly after the proclamation of the sentence, Benedict XVI in a General Audience publicly supported Asia Bibi's cause. Muslim groups, as e.g. the radical Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami, protested against this "interference of the pope in the internal affairs of Pakistan," as a result of which the feelings were "hurt" not only of 180 million Muslims in Pakistan but throughout the Islamic world.

 

Forced Conversion to Islam

On 8 May 2011 in the city of Rahim Yar Khan in southern Punjab province, the 24-year-old Catholic nurse Hatim Farah got kidnapped and was forced to convert to Islam and to marry a Muslim. Despite a request by the provincial authorities, the competent police authorities refused to take steps and to liberate the young woman, because the hijackers produced a sworn statement in which Hatim Farah declares that she "voluntarily" converted to Islam - a statement of which the relatives are convinced that it was done only under duress. Given the failure of the Pakistani authorities, a number of international organizations have now taken care of the case and appealed to the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. The case Hatim Farah is not an isolated case. In Pakistan, every year hundreds of women, members of minorities, but also Muslim young women are kidnapped and forcibly married, and in case of non-Muslims forced to convert to Islam.

 


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As official religion of the state, Islam, which comprises 97.2 percent of the 170 million Pakistanis, is everywhere present and dominant. The vast majority of Pakistani Muslims are Sunni, while the proportion of Shiites is between 15 to 20 percent. In the past, the two Muslim groups lived mostly peacefully together. Under the dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (1977 to 1988) this changed, because the policy of this for the further development of the country so fateful general was one-sidedly Sunni-oriented. Since then, there are increasingly armed conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, in which mosques are attacked and which claim the lives of many people.

Not only the Shiites, other Muslim groups, too, have big problems. Thus, because of its doctrine, which recognizes the founder of the movement as prophet, the Ahmadiyya movement, which in Pakistan has between two and four million followers, has been declared to be an un-Islamic movement. Its followers are therefore no longer regarded as Muslims and are e.g. barred from the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the first years after independence, in Pakistan Christians and Muslims worked together on building the new state. It was a form of coexistence, which could be described with the later coined term "dialogue of life." Also in Pakistan, the Second Vatican Council has initiated the conduct of a rather formal dialogue, a dialogue between experts and a dialogue at the level of social activities. There were especially religious people, like the Dominicans in the Pastoral Center of Multan and the Jesuits in Lahore, the Franciscans and members of female religious communities who founded groups of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Members of those groups, Christians and Muslims, have repeatedly together protested against violations of human rights. In 1992 in Lahore a working group "Faith in Action" was founded, where Christian and Muslim social workers, medical personnel and lawyers together tackle social problems. Since 1985 there is within the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan a "Commission for Christian-Muslim Relations", which coordinates the work in the field of interreligious dialogue for the seven dioceses of the country. In recent years, however, the work of this Commission has been less successful, since the increasing Islamization, and especially the radicalization within Islamic groups has increasingly impeded the dialogue.

The campaign of the religious political party "Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam" is rather to see as a scurrility. In June 2011 it applied to the Supreme Court of the country for a ban on certain parts of the Old Testament, on the grounds that these were of "pornographic nature". Maulana Abdul Rauf Farooqi, the spiritual leader of the group, said that Muslim believers, who esteemed all the "prophets and holy books," felt offended in their faith by such texts. Unlike the happening in the U.S. by Pastor Terry Jones with the Koran, they would not even think about burning the Bible for this reason, but called on the Supreme Court to ban these texts as pornographic. Both the Catholic and the Protestant Church have condemned this action of the Islamists and warned that such actions would put a heavy strain on the religious peace in the country. Probably with a view to the futility of this request and in response to strong criticism of this venture, not only by Christians but also by other social groups in the country, the Islamic party has withdrawn its application, before the Supreme Court of the country was able to make a decision.

Recently, there was a sign of hope for an improvement of relations between religious communities in Pakistan, as in June 2011 just in the region of Waziristan in northern Pakistan, which is seen as a refuge for the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups, more than 300 Islamic scholars (ulema Malvis) have spoken out against terrorist acts and violence. Whether this fatwa actually has an impact on the activities of violence-prone groups remains to be seen. After all, it is a positive sign, perhaps somewhat prematurely by observers described as "historic". It might signify a change in thinking within the spiritual leadership of Islam, and reconciliation.

 

    {*} Georg Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.

 

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