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More Context on Christians in Pakistan

Christian faith involves more dangers in Pakistan than in North America or Europe.

Christian faith involves more dangers in Pakistan than in North America or Europe. That’s easy to forget when Presbyterian Church of Pakistan pastor Eric Sarwar is posting on Facebook about praying with youth, organizing a psalm festival, preaching sermons, judging a hymn competition, and teaching a church music and worship course.

During the same six weeks, he also posted:

  • Pukhtoon terrorists killed Faisal Masih. Two members of MASS [Mission and Action for Social Services], Pastor Cornelious and Shahzad Riaz, was seriously injured by police firing.
  • Again Muslim fanatics attacked on my hometown…third attack since last week and four people been killed and many been injured. There is no voice and backup support from any leaders, police, and media.
  • Last night heavy gunfires in front of our home. My father slipped and fallen while he was hurrying towards door and my 2.9 years son Gabriel was badly scared from firing….Kindly pray for our family and peace in Karachi.

Yet anyone tempted to sum up Pakistan as “all terrorists” completely misses the complexity of the world’s sixth most-populous country. More than 500 years before God made a covenant with Abraham, people in the Indus Valley (which includes modern Pakistan) used a written script and designed the world’s first urban sanitation systems.

Since then, a bewildering mix of languages, rulers, religions, and civilizations has flowered and faded along the mighty Indus River. Here’s a brief look at key factors that have shaped or still affect Christians in this complex society.

Christian missionaries

Christians have worshiped on the Indian subcontinent for at least 18 centuries. However, most Pakistani Christians trace their roots to 19th century British and American missionaries. British colonizers built grand cathedrals and churches, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) in Karachi, Cathedral Church of the Resurrection (Anglican) in Lahore, and charming chapels in Murree, a summer mountain resort town.

Missionaries established excellent schools. Hindus and Muslims appreciated the fact that in learning about the Bible and Christianity, their children would learn moral values, something not taught in government schools. Graduates of these prestigious Christian schools went on into legislative, judicial, and executive jobs. Missionaries also found ingenious ways to provide education for girls.

Though these elite schools didn’t result in many conversions, administrators expected they would produce leaders who were not prejudiced against Christianity

Missionaries baptized converts from all caste levels but most of all among low-caste and outcaste people. They started rural schools to offer three years of primary education so Christians could at least read the Bible and teach Sunday school. The best students were sent on for more education.

Many new Catholics and Protestants came from the Chuhra tribe, now known as Dalit Christians. They were sweepers and scavengers, forced by Hindus and Muslims to live outside village limits, because they did the work those religions considered shameful. They removed dead animals from roads and fields, tanned animal hides, and cleaned latrines and streets. Hindus thought even a Chuhra’s shadow was polluting.

 “Free to worship”

Muslims were a minority in British-ruled India. Pakistan was formed as a homeland for Muslims in 1947, after India won independence. The Punjab region in northwest India was partitioned so that 80 percent of the land became the country of Pakistan and 20 percent stayed within Indian boundaries.

Partitioning the Punjab caused tremendous upheaval and rioting. Hindus in Pakistan, and Muslims in India, were forced into refugee camps on either side of the border. Millions of people lost their homes, businesses, and lives. As richer Christians moved to more peaceful countries, the poorer Christians they had employed lost their jobs.

Civil rights activists often quote a speech by Pakistan founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah. He said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

But ever since Jinnah died in 1948, Pakistanis have argued whether their country was meant to be a secular society safe for all, or an Islamic state governed by sharia, Islamic religious law that applies to every aspect of personal, legal, and financial life.

Pakistan originally had a quota system that reserved five percent of admissions for Christians in higher education, the army, and government positions. You can see the results in websites of educated urban congregations, such as Naulakha Presbyterian Church and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Nabha Road), or of Pakistani Christian leaders, such as Ernest Shams, a retired military officer and ordained Presbyterian pastor.

Blasphemy laws squelch freedom

Equal opportunity for religious minorities in Pakistan, however, did not last. Pakistan has had four constitutions and been in and out of martial law. Meanwhile, the U.S. war on terror has spilled over into Pakistan.

In 1972, Islam was made the state religion. Pakistan stopped setting aside government positions for minorities. It nationalized Christian schools most accessible to poorer Christians, and Protestant colleges. Christians thus had less access to education and good jobs. Literacy levels rose among Muslims and declined among religious minorities, especially women. Elite Pakistanis continued to send their children to Christian schools. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, graduated from Catholic schools and Forman Christian College.

The government gradually amended the blasphemy law by increasing the range of what counted as blasphemy against Islam, Muslims, Muhammud, or the Quran, and by imposing an automatic death penalty.

Those who show sympathy to the (often falsely) accused many times become targets themselves. In 2011 a governor and the minister of minorities were assassinated because they supported amending the blasphemy law. Although courts exonerated a Down Syndrome girl accused of blasphemy, she and her family can’t return home safely.

Income, education, and discrimination

“Pakistan’s overwhelming majority is tolerant and in favour of giving equal rights to minorities and women,” historian I. H. Malik concluded in a 2002 Minority Rights Group International report. Yet laws have not changed, so Christians—as well as Shia Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and other minorities—still suffer harm from extremists.

A Pakistani guest at a Calvin Symposium on Worship confided that he has a management position in a respected firm. “I have a cross on my desk. Some of my colleagues spit on it when they walk by,” he said.

But education may play a bigger role in discrimination than religion does, according to Anna-Joy Alves in her University of Birmingham (UK) master’s dissertation, “How Wealth/poverty Affects the Treatment of Christian Women in Pakistan.” She interviewed 30 urban women in the Punjab Province, where 90 percent of Christians live.

The richer Christians Alves talked with had university educations, good houses, good jobs (teacher, headmistress, actress, gym instructor, nonprofit administrator, housewife, nurse), and money for leisure. The poorer ones had varied education and low-paying jobs (beauty parlors, factories, brick kilns, maids) or no work.

All had experienced some sort of discrimination. It was most intense for poorer women, who spoke of police failing to protect them from rape, assault, or torture.

The more prosperous women said that Muslims have been surprised to find they are Christian, because the stereotype is that Christians are poor, dark-skinned, poorly educated, unable to speak English, dishonest, addicted, and likely to steal if not watched.

All agreed that, regardless of religion, richer Pakistanis are likely to be respected and poorer ones to be despised. The majority of rich and poor Christian women told Alves that education is the single thing that would most improve the lives of Christian women. Education helps women earn more. It also helps Christian women know their rights and know how to give reasons for their faith.

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Learn More

Listen to BBC interviews with and about Christians in Pakistan. Pray for Christian women living in poverty in Pakistan. See a documentary clip of a Christian slum in Islamabad, where wealthy bureaucrats paid to wall off the colony from the rest of the neighborhood. Learn about the blasphemy law.

Stay up on Pakistan news online:

Christian communities in the Indian subcontinent sprang from many sources. St. Thomas Christians along the Malabar Coast say their churches began because of a visit by the Apostle Thomas. Fourth century Syrian immigrants and 16th century Catholic missionary priests from Portugal established enduring traditions. Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan, has more students than Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, youth ministry, or church education meeting. These questions will help people remember to pray for religious freedom in Pakistan.

  • What surprises you about Christians and Christianity in Pakistan?
  • Share examples of religious persecution or discrimination that you’ve experienced or know of. How is it the same as or different from what happens in Pakistan?
  • What first steps could you take to pray more often in worship for Christians who suffer because of their faith? How might you pray for their persecutors?

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