Pakistan's tiny Christian community, one of the most marginalized in the country, say they're being persecuted by hard-line mullahs.
Life on any given day for Pakistani Christians is difficult. But members of Pakistan’s Christian community say now they're being persecuted for U.S. drone attacks on Islamic militants hiding on the border with Afghanistan.
The minority, which accounts for an estimated one percent of the country’s 170 million population, says because its faith is strongly associated with America, it is targeted by Muslims.
“When America does a drone strike, they come and blame us,” Faisal Massi, a 25-year old student from Sau Quarter, a Christian colony in Islamabad. “They think we belong to America. It’s a simple mentality.”
Massi and other residents in the colony, one of more than a dozen in the capital, described how their relatives in outlying villages, especially near the tribal areas where Islamic fundamentalism prevails, often find themselves in physical confrontation with Sunni and Shia’a Muslims enraged by the missiles strikes that have claimed the lives of at least 600 citizens in recent years.
“Christian villagers are verbally abused in public and harassed in the street by groups of Muslim youths,” Massi added.
Much of the persecution is instigated by hard-line mullahs seeking to gain popular support for their anti-American extremist agendas.
But, given there is little government or institutional assistance to the community, Pakistan’s Christians remain arguably the country’s most marginalized minority.
Their plight was brought into sharp focus following this year’s assassinations of two of their strongest political supporters amid a national fight over the case of a Christian woman faced with a death sentence under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law. Salman Tasseer, the governor of Punjab, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January, in apparent anger at his employer’s calls to reform the long-standing legislation.
Then, just weeks later, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of Pakistan’s minorities minister, Shabaz Bhatti, who was a Christian.
Christians are no stranger to the trappings of blasphemy law. It is often abused by those seeking to settle private scores. Under Sharia law, no evidence of the alleged blasphemy can be presented in court because the perceived offense against God would be repeated, committing further sacrilege.
“It’s a dinosaur law,” said an angry Bashir Massi, a retired cleaner and no relation to Faisal. “There is nothing that Christians do that makes them guilty of blasphemy. The accusers make it up as they go along.”
Day-to-day life is challenging for many Christians in Pakistan. In Islamabad’s Sau Quarter, a stone’s throw from the Taseer murder scene, some 4,000 residents live cramped inside an acre-sized slum. Their squalid houses are separated by fly-infested narrow alleys and open sewers, yet surrounded by one of Pakistan’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The residents have squatted on the land for decades but the municipal authorities have allowed them to stay although they offer them virtually no assistance in improving living conditions. Those living in Sau Quarter say they get a maximum of 14 hours electricity from the grid a day, staggered at awkward hours, amid a national energy crisis. Just one block away, the rich enjoy a supply of 20 hours with expensive generators to cover the blackouts.
Christians also allege the Muslim-led government, the most sought employer in Pakistan among the poorer classes, is deliberately keeping them at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“Only extremely low-paid jobs are given to Christians by the Capital Development Authority (Islamabad’s municipal body). If there is a clerk’s or security guard’s job comes up they won’t give it to a Christian,” said Fasial Massi.
“You have to bribe your way with officials into being hired, even for the lowest job. It costs Rs100,000 ($1,184) to become a street sweeper.” That equals around 18 months’ salary for a typical unskilled job here.
Adding to their sense of vulnerability following the deaths of their two biggest supporters, the community is without a natural high-level political patron – essential in Pakistan’s deeply partisan society.
There is confusion surrounding a replacement for the late minorities minister Shabaz Bhatti, for whom the Vatican is now being pressured by international groups to be declared a martyr or even canonized. A Hindu senator had resigned his seat to take the post but he has not been appointed following protests from Christian groups.
“It should be a Christian because (that) community has the greatest strength in influence than other minority communities,” said Dr. Nelson Azeem, the vice-president of the National Council of Churches in an interview with Fox News last month. “The minister would also be equally sympathetic to Hindus and Sikhs.”
Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari has since appointed Bhatti’s brother Paul to be the special advisor on religious minorities, leaving the ministerial post in limbo.
Some observers consider it a job now impossible to fill as many believe comes with a guaranteed death sentence, especially as Christians now do not receive the kind of protections from the democratic government that they once did under the former dictator Pervez Musharaf. Musharaf ordered dedicated police patrols for churches across the country during the early rise of Islamic fundamentalists, well before 9/11.
Now no church receives such protection in Pakistan.
“The government is under pressure from fundamentalists. We are worried we have become unprotected. There is a deficit of protection, especially in the case of the blasphemy law,” said Azeem. “It has become frightful that we cannot express our ideas due to fear of death.”
In Sau Quarter, Faisal Massi agreed, describing what he said was his greatest nightmare: “We are losing our supporters. If we decided to protests in numbers someone will come along, click the button on their suicide belt and blow us up.”