Under the Cross

An overview of the severe persecution of Christians that has followed Pakistan’s Islamization

Under the Cross

On March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities and the nation’s most prominent Catholic layman, walked out of his mother’s home in Islamabad and entered the rear seat of his black Toyota Corolla. As his chauffeur began to drive him up the street, a Subaru blocked the way. Gunmen dressed in traditional local clothing got out and fired a few shots at the Corolla’s windshield. The gunmen—two, three, or four, depending upon which local press account you read—came around to the left rear and shot Bhatti dozens of times. The assassins then sped away. It was 11:00 in the morning.

Family members who heard the shots ran out of the house. A niece attempted to take Bhatti’s pulse and later showed a British reporter the bloodstain on her hand. The chauffeur drove Bhatti to the nearest hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The assassins left pamphlets at the scene of the crime; as translated by Newsweek Pakistan, they stated:

This is a warning from the warriors of Islam to all the world’s infidels, Crusaders,  Jews, and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood, especially the head of Pakistan’s infidel system, [President Asif Ali] Zardari, his ministers, and all the institutions of this evil system… In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favor of and support those who insult the Prophet. And you put a cursed Christian infidel Shahbaz Bhatti in charge of the committee [for reviewing the nation’s blasphemy law]. This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing.

Bhatti’s assassination followed a particularly cruel year for Pakistan’s 2.8 million Christians, 1.1 million of whom are Catholic—fewer than the number of Catholics in Connecticut, spread out over a nation twice as large as Montana. The country is 97 percent Muslim and 1.5 percent Christian.

“The cross has a special meaning in Pakistan,” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, the nation’s second-largest city, said in 2009. “It is related to the everyday sufferings and difficulties we face in this terror hit-country.”

Despite some encouraging news—such as the headlines “Pakistani Islamic leader issues a fatwa against terrorists” and “Amid persecution in Pakistan, Dominican vocations flourish”—a selection of Catholic World News’ 2010 headlines manifests the truth of the prelate’s statement:

Ÿ  Catholic girl brutally murdered in Pakistan

Ÿ  Pakistan: Lawyers intimidate witnesses, observers at trial of Christian girl’s accused killer

Ÿ  Pakistan: Muslims burn down Catholic home, police ignore incident

Ÿ  Pakistan: Christians protest release of girl’s alleged murderer

Ÿ  Muslims attack Christian churches, homes in Pakistan’s largest city

Ÿ  Pakistani archbishop laments Taliban tax on non-Muslims

Ÿ  Another “blasphemy” arrest draws protest from Pakistan’s Catholic bishops

Ÿ  Pakistani bishop laments failure to arrest Christians’ murderers

Ÿ  Pakistan: Five killed as Islamic militants attack Christian church

Ÿ  “Brutal execution” of three American Christians in Pakistan

Ÿ  Catholic shot in front of church in Pakistan

Ÿ  Pakistan under pressure to revoke death sentence on young mother for “blasphemy”

Ÿ  Pakistani Christians outraged at acquittal of girl’s alleged rapist, murderer

Ÿ  Pakistani court: No pardon for Christian woman sentenced to death

Ÿ  Pakistan: Imam offers reward for death of Christian woman

Ÿ  Pakistan: Terrorists issue fatwa against Catholic cabinet minister

Ÿ  Pakistan: Court orders government not to change blasphemy law

Ÿ  Pakistan: Bishop denounces rape of nine-year-old Catholic girl

Ÿ  Pakistani Church leaders fear reprisals after Christmas Eve protests against blasphemy law

A few of these headlines refer to Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother whose death sentence on blasphemy charges led to international protests; most, however, refer to incidents largely unknown in the West.

The assassination—the nation’s bishops say the martyrdom—of Shahbaz Bhatti and the cruel year of 2010 did not arise in a vacuum, but were the culmination of decades of Islamization that have made Pakistani Christians among the world’s most oppressed.


Nearly six centuries before the founding of Islam, an apostle set foot in what is now the northeastern Pakistani province of Punjab, says the author of several books on Pakistan.

“St. Thomas came to Taxila [a Punjabi city] in the first century and then went down south and passed away in Goa [in India],” says Professor Iftikhar Malik, senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He told CWR that “there must have been a Christian community of one form or the other in the early era, but then Buddhism and eventually a reinvigorated Hinduism changed the entire demographic configuration until the arrival of Islam.”

Islam arrived with the conquest of the region by the Syrian Ummayad general Muhammad bin Qasim in 712. “The entire history of invasions and migrations, especially across the Indus Valley—the present-day Pakistan—must have made it difficult for Christian community to survive,” says Malik. “The Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (1542-1605), did invite Jesuits to his court, and they joined his multi-faith debates amidst high hopes that the emperor would eventually convert himself.” With the collapse of the empire, the area became part of the British colony of India in 1858.

Protestant and Catholic missionaries entered the region, built churches and schools, and began to evangelize high-caste Hindus in the hopes that they would be converted and influence others. The strategy, in general, did not work.

Eventually, missionaries made their way to Punjab, where they evangelized the Churas—the region’s dalits or untouchables. “They were sweepers and scavengers, forced by Hindus and Muslims to live outside village limits, because they did the work those religions considered shameful,” the Michigan-based Calvin Institute for Christian Worship notes. “They removed dead animals from roads and fields, tanned animal hides, and cleaned latrines and streets. Hindus thought even a Chura’s shadow was polluting.”

Malik adds, “On the one side, education brought greater respect for Christians, yet concurrently they suffered from the age-old views on untouchability.”

More than a century later, “Chura” remains a term of opprobrium, a slur directed at Christians, according to Shaheryar Gill, associate counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “Every Christian in his life has experienced being called that derogatory term by his Muslim neighbors, friends, and others,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Zenit news agency. Gill, a Pakistani Christian, explained that “this term for Christians has been imported [from the Hindu caste system], and it signifies Christians as low-caste citizens.”

By 1931, Christian Churas outnumbered Hindu Churas around Lahore, Punjab’s capital. Pakistan became independent in 1947 with the partition of Muslim-majority regions from India and the end of British colonialism. Three days before independence, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and first leader, said that

history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some states in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.

This vision of a largely Muslim but secular Pakistan did not survive. The 1956 constitution, while recognizing religious freedom, declared the nation an Islamic republic and stated that only a Muslim could serve as president. Nonetheless, Malik notes that Christian “schools and colleges were viewed as the best in the country until nationalization happened under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” a Berkeley-educated socialist, in 1972. By the late 1980s, a lower percentage of Christian children than Muslim children were attending school.


In 1978, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto, launched what is known as Pakistan’s Islamization. Sharia courts were granted power to overturn some civil laws, amputation of the hand was declared the punishment for theft, and flogging and stoning were declared the punishment for adultery. From 1979 to 2002, Christians were permitted to vote only for candidates for four designated Christian seats in national assembly elections. All students—even non-Muslims—were compelled to study either Islam or Islamic-based ethics as part of the school curriculum.

“The Law of Evidence and Compensation requires two women witnesses to counter the evidence given by one Muslim man,” Archbishop Saldanha wrote in 1987. “The evidence of a Hindu or Christian carries the same weight as that of a Muslim woman. In the case of murder, compensation for a male Muslim victim is to be double that for a female Muslim or other minority member victim.”

Under the leadership of Zia (1978-88)—a staunch US ally following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—Pakistan also adopted its controversial blasphemy laws. Under the laws, the “misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places” is to be punished by imprisonment, and the defiling of the Qur’an carries a sentence of life imprisonment. In 1986, the most controversial provision was adopted: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

For more than two dozen years, Zia’s Islamization has helped shape the culture of what is now the world’s sixth most populous nation. In 2005, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated that “many” of the nation’s “thousands of Islamic religious schools…continue to provide ideological training and motivation to those who take part in violence, targeting religious minorities in Pakistan and abroad.”

Discrimination as well as violence affects Pakistan’s Christians. “About 80 percent of the Catholics lack education and training,” Asia Focus reported in 1991. “A small number of Catholics have risen to respectable posts, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen.… While a middle class is emerging, posts in the top executive brackets are still denied Christians because of prejudice or discrimination.” Christians, more often than not, work in the fields of Muslim landowners or as sanitation workers or domestic servants.

In this climate, numerous Christians have chosen to convert to Islam—at least 20 per week by early 2011—to escape persecution, to seek better economic opportunities, or to obtain a divorce. Not all conversions have been freely chosen. Between 1999 and 2006, 431 Christians converted to Islam following abduction, according to the Pakistani bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace.


In the 1980s and 1990s, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, a Punjabi city that is the nation’s third largest, became the most vocal defender of the rights of the increasingly beleaguered Christian minority. Arrested in 1995 for speaking out against the state—the charges were dismissed—he said in 1996 that “in the name of religion, countless injustices have been practiced in the last 49 years in Pakistan,” adding that the blasphemy law “opened the floodgates of religious fury. Religious extremists and fundamentalists started accusing non-Muslims all over Pakistan of blasphemy.”

The effects of General Zia’s Islamization inflicted an increasing toll on the nation’s Christians, as documented in the archives of UCA News, Fides, and other Catholic news agencies. In 1988, a priest and an American nun were shot by unknown assailants, and tens of thousands of flood victims complained that they were denied government aid because they were Christian. The following year, demonstrators stoned a Catholic school to protest the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, even though Catholic and Protestant leaders in Pakistan had joined Muslims in criticizing Rushdie’s treatment of Muhammad. In one town, local Muslims boycotted Christian stores, Christians were pelted with bricks, and a Protestant church was destroyed. In Karachi, the nation’s largest city, four teenagers broke into a tabernacle, desecrated the Host, smashed windows, and defecated in the sanctuary.

In 1991, Sharia became the supreme law of Pakistan. A Christian member of the national assembly was beaten by police, and members of the ruling party hurled stones at a Catholic parish. Following a Christian protest, police entered the Lahore cathedral, “beat children, elders, and women and used tear gas, as a result of which 35 children and 20 women were injured,” UCA News reported at the time. “The cross was even kicked.”

Two Christian brothers—Gul and Bashir Masih—were imprisoned on blasphemy charges; while Bashir was released, Gul became the first person sentenced to death under the law. The charge stemmed from a conversation Gul had with his neighbor—after the neighbor told him that Christians believe in three gods and that the Virgin Mary must have been a prostitute, Gul responded that Muhammad had 11 wives, one of whom was a child. After three years, Gul was acquitted. “In jail I had a good opportunity to read the Gospels anew,” he later recounted. “They have convinced me that forgiveness and love are central in the Christian message. I forgive each and every one who was against me.”

Naimat Ahmar, an award-winning Punjabi novelist and a Christian, was stabbed to death by a student in 1992 after allegedly making disparaging remarks about Muhammad. Local police and government officials reportedly reacted by kissing the face of the killer. Later that year, seven Christian street sweepers in Karachi were tortured in a government-run school by activists of a leading local political party. Christians took part in protests when the government proposed listing religion on the national identification card. In response, an Anglican bishop’s residence was stoned in the Punjabi city of Gojra; later, another Anglican bishop was kidnapped.

In 1993, armed robbers terrorized rectories and convents in Punjab, and Christian lawmakers were asked to swear an Islamic oath before taking their seats in parliament. Later that year, after kidnappings and other forms of intimidation failed, local landowners seeking additional property bulldozed the small Christian village of Sikandarabad in the southeastern province of Sindh, destroying a church and the homes of the 40 residents.

By 1997, the persecution became even more intense. Following an alleged Qur’an desecration, a mob of between 15,000 and 20,000 attacked two Punjabi Christian villages, desecrating churches, burning 200 Bibles, and setting fire to 800 homes; at least 300 police reportedly looked on as the violence took place. The nations’ bishops urged Catholics to pray for their persecutors, donate a day’s salary to the homeless villagers, engage in peaceful protests, and repent of their sins.

“The only salvation for our beloved motherland is a secular Pakistan, or democratic republic of Pakistan,” Bishop Joseph said in 1996. “Blood is flowing, meaninglessly, all over Pakistan. In order to stop this bloodshed, we offer ourselves. We are ready to suffer, so that peace may come.”

Particularly troubling was the stream of blasphemy cases that followed the arrest of Gul Masih. “Basically, two types of Christians are accused in blasphemy cases: those who are too poor to defend themselves and those with high living standards,” Father Aftab James Paul of Faisalabad said in 2009. “Settling of personal scores and jealousy are the main driving forces behind both types.”

By 1998, four Christians had been sentenced to death for blasphemy, three had been acquitted, and an additional five had been killed in prison. In May 1998, as Bishop Joseph was leading prayers for a change in the blasphemy law, he told the assembled parishioners that “we cannot engage lawyers, the judges are scared and give biased judgments. We have no way except to shed our blood and that time has come to make sacrifice.” He then traveled to the steps of a courthouse and shot himself.

Bishop Joseph’s suicide did little to change the conditions of Pakistan’s Christians; in ensuing months, two more Christians were arrested for blasphemy, 16 Christian homes and shops were destroyed in Karachi, and a mob of thousands attacked an Anglican boarding school in Faisalabad after Christians were blamed for starting a hospital fire in which the Qur’an was burned.


In the dozen years following Bishop Joseph’s suicide, the young Catholic layman Shahbaz Bhatti became a leading defender of the nation’s beleaguered Christians. Born in 1968, Bhatti hailed from Khushpur, a Punjabi village with 7,000 Catholics; known as the “Vatican of Pakistan,” it has produced 20 priests and more than 100 nuns in the last century. Bhatti founded the Christian Liberation Front as a college student in 1985 and helped found the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in 2002. Elected to the national assembly in 2008, he was appointed federal minister for minorities, becoming the nation’s only Christian cabinet minister.

In addition to a stream of blasphemy accusations, persecution of Christians continued to rage in the late 1990s and in the early years of the 21st century. In 1999, vandals destroyed Bibles in a Protestant church in Punjab, and police raided a Christian slum in Karachi, reportedly beating women and children. In Sindh, more than three dozen men armed with hatchets attempted to drive Christian farmers off their land. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, 70 Christians were arrested for blasphemy.

The following year, a 78-year-old nun was beaten to death near Karachi, and seven Christian women were gang-raped in a bus near Lahore. In the years that followed, worshipers in Protestant and Catholic churches throughout the country were attacked, beaten and killed. A Christian school was attacked and six people were killed in 2002; seven Christians were killed at an ecumenical office in Karachi that same year.

In a 2002 pastoral letter, Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan exhorted Catholics to continue to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days despite the fear of violence, emphasizing the necessity of prayer and the Eucharist for a Christian life.

One hundred and fifty students at an Islamic school attacked a Protestant church in Islamabad in 2005, forcing 70 Christian women outside and beating some of them. On Easter Sunday, gunmen opened fire during a Protestant service in Lahore, killing one. In November of that year, a mob in Punjab attacked Catholic and Protestant churches after a Christian reportedly desecrated the Qur’an.

On Palm Sunday in 2007, a mob of 90, shouting, “Kill the Christians,” attacked a Christian enclave in a Punjabi town. Later that year, a Protestant bishop and his wife were murdered in their home. In the Punjabi village of Nizampura, the impoverished Christian parents of a 14-year-old gang-rape victim were threatened after they pressed charges.

In 2007 and 2008, Youhanbad, a Lahore suburb that is home to Pakistan’s largest Christian community, saw increasing violence against priests and religious: a priest was attacked and tortured, a nun was beaten, and another nun’s throat was slit. In 2008, when terrorists bombed the federal investigative building in Lahore, the adjacent cathedral and three Catholic schools were practically destroyed.

The summer of 2009 foreshadowed the cruel year of 2010. Using firearms and explosives, a mob of thousands destroyed the Christian village of Korian in Punjab in July after a Christian family in the village had been accused of blasphemy. Two days later, a mob of 800 attacked Christians in Gojra, burning seven alive. Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad charged that “a banned Islamic group” “wants to ‘purify’ Pakistan by making it a strictly Islamic, theocratic state” and desires non-Muslims to “either convert to Islam or leave the place.… They want a sort of religious cleansing.” In August, after local Christians received telephone and mail warnings for months urging them to “convert to Islam or die,” six Christians were killed and seven were injured. The killings took place in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, which adjoins Afghanistan.

In this context of violence and discrimination, Shahbaz Bhatti strove to amend the nation’s blasphemy laws. “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us,” he said several weeks before his assassination. “I know what is the meaning of the cross, and I follow him on the cross.”

“When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me,” he continued. “I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 63 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.