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Catholicism in Pakistan: Living under the threat of “blasphemy”

According to Fr. Tariq Isaac, who lived in Pakistan for nearly two decades, most Pakistani Catholics have experienced some form of direct personal discrimination, and the majority of their countrymen automatically dislike them because of their faith.

The daughters of Asia Bibi, a Catholic eventually aquitted of blasphemy, pose in 2010 with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic mother freed after eight years on death row, says people must help Pakistanis falsely implicated in blasphemy cases get released. (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

When Pakistan became an independent nation in 1947, religious minorities – including Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs – accounted for 23 percent of the population. They now account for less than 5 percent.

With a population of more than 210 million, Pakistan is the world’s most populous Muslim nation behind Indonesia (which has more than 260 million people). Some 95 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim, and the majority of them belong to the Sunni denomination.

Though only about 1 percent of all persons in Pakistan are Catholic, the nation’s overall population has risen to such a number that even this tiny minority comprises about 2 million individuals. These Catholics can face obstacles ranging from personal harassment to church attacks to anti-Christian vigilantes, vandals and looters, along with the threat of perhaps the world’s most severe blasphemy laws.

“Throughout the history of Pakistan, religious minorities haven been treated badly,” says Fr. Tariq Isaac, chaplain of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Catholic community.

Ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of Lahore on January 15, 1993, Fr. Isaac left Pakistan in August 2011 due to persecution against his family. He says that Catholics and Protestants are “equally mistreated” (and, for that matter, there are about as many Protestants as there are Catholics in Pakistan).

According to Isaac, most Pakistani Catholics have experienced some form of direct personal discrimination, and the majority of their countrymen automatically dislike them because of their faith. He adds that most Catholics in Pakistan live in neighborhoods with other Catholics.

Mass in Pakistan is typically conducted in Urdu, which is the national language. In large urban areas, Mass is sometimes given in English.

There are four dioceses and two archdioceses (in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, respectively). As of 2016, the Archdiocese of Lahore had 73 priests and 27 parishes. That same year, the Archdiocese of Karachi reported having 52 priests and 16 parishes.

Most Catholic clergy are Pakistani natives, though Isaac adds that some come from Sri Lanka, Australia, Europe, or the USA.

Isaac relates that there is one theological seminary in Karachi, one philosophical seminary in Lahore, and five additional minor seminaries in Pakistan.

Among the most-admired persons in the history of Pakistani Catholicism is Shahbaz Bhatti. The nation’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Bhatti was the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet and had been seeking modifications to the nation’s blasphemy laws. He was assassinated in March 2011. Five years after Bhatti’s slaying, the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi launched his cause for beatification. He is currently a “Servant of God.”

Other high-profile Christians targeted include Pope John Paul II. When the pontiff visited Karachi in February 1981, a bombing attempt was made on his life. Fortunately, the bomb detonated prematurely – about 15 minutes before his arrival at National Stadium. The only life claimed was that of the would-be assassin.

Of course, many Christian targets have not been so lucky. One of the most infamous incidents of anti-Christian violence occurred in Lahore on Easter Sunday 2016, when more than 70 people were killed in a suicide blast at a public park. Though many of the victims were actually Muslim, the spokesman for the terrorist group claiming responsibility said that, “Members of the Christian community who were celebrating Easter today were our prime target.”

One year earlier, in 2015, the same terrorist group launched coordinated bombings at two separate churches (one Catholic, one Protestant) in Lahore that killed at least 14 people.

On Sept. 22, 2013, the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, suffered a twin suicide bomb attack that killed about 80 people.

The BBC reported in October 2018 that Pakistan’s Christians, along with other religious minorities, have suffered increased violence in recent years – and that most of the attacks have “been motivated by the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.”

According to the current Open Doors World Watch List, Pakistan ranks as the fifth-most oppressive country for Christians – behind such nations as North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya.

One large reason why Pakistan has reached this top-five status is that females from religious minority groups are subject to kidnapping, rape, and forced conversions. Such incidents involving underage females have been occurring at an increasingly frequent rate, according to a 2019 report issued by members of European Parliament (the legislative body of the European Union).

This report adds how Christians, after suffering a religiously-motivated attack, are typically “ignored by the police authorities.” It also adds that Christians face widespread workplace discrimination and are typically excluded from well-paying and high-status jobs. Therefore, they often resort to jobs involving the collection of waste. One example given mentions that most Lahore sanitation workers are Christian, even though Christians account for only a small fraction of the overall population.

Those Pakistani Christians who do manage to attain worldly success can find themselves especially resented. It is common for blasphemy accusations to be made by people who are actually seeking to settle a personal vendetta or obtain someone else’s property. Isaac says that many people in Pakistan “don’t want to see a wealthy Christian.” So, “local political and religious leaders might come together and make a blasphemy accusation.”

Isaac relates that, when Christians are accused of blasphemy, announcements are broadcast on the loudspeakers of mosques. “People don’t wait for the police or for a court decision. They take the law into their own hands” and set out for the home of the accused blasphemer. “If the police reach in time, then they arrest” the accused person(s), whom they bring to a safer location.

For Christian victims of religiously-motivated attacks, legal recourse can be highly elusive. Isaac says that judges in lower courts would be risking their own lives if they decided in favor of a Christian, and that only in the Supreme Court might a Christian victim obtain justice.

In Isaac’s view, Pakistan’s government has not made a reasonable effort to curb incidents of anti-Christian hostility. He adds that the predicament of religious minorities might improve if the world’s most powerful nations put pressure on the Pakistani government to address this issue.

Despite the degree of persecution, Isaac remains “very much optimistic” about the future of Christianity in Pakistan, owing to the strength of the faithful.


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About Ray Cavanaugh 10 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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