Pakistan's Christians Face Sectarian Violence

This spring I was in Pakistan doing research on religious rituals among the country’s Shia Muslim population. As a Christian with an interest in interfaith dialogue, I make it a habit when I travel in Muslim countries also to learn about local Christian communities.

On a beautiful Sunday morning, March 17, I was in the Punjabi city of Lahore, attending a church servicethe same morning that at another Christian service, in Islamabad, worshippers were subjected to a terrorist assault. But at the church I attended, some 150 miles south of Islamabad, all was quiet. I took part in an Anglican service at the Cathedral of the Resurrection. None of us knew what was about to happen in Islamabad. The prevailing air was one of calm, of order. The neo-Gothic vaulting overhead, the hymns sung by the choir from an old Church of England repertoire, the tea served afterward in the rectory: these things were lulling and made it easy to sentimentalize the morning as part of some bygone heyday from the imperial British Raj.


The next day’s news headlines were a jarring wake-up to present-day realities. A grenade attack on Islamabad’s Protestant International Churchfive persons killed, among them a Pakistani as well as an American woman and her daughter. The assault was not the first in Pakistan on a Christian place of worship. Last Oct. 28, three weeks after the United States began bombing Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, an attack on a church in Bahawalpur left 15 Pakistani Christians dead, together with a Muslim policeman who tried to guard them.

In the weeks after the Islamabad attack, I talked to many Pakistani ChristiansCatholics, Protestants and Anglicansin private homes and at dinners and church socials. Several discerned what they described as a larger pattern of violence directed not only at Christians, but at other religious minorities throughout the country. Among these targets of hatred is the Shia Muslim community. A minority in Pakistan (they comprise some 15 percent to 20 percent of the population), Shias are viewed with suspicion by many of Pakistan’s Sunni majority, who regard Shia beliefs and rituals as heterodox. Militantly minded fundamentalists among the Sunnis go further. For example, leading members of an anti-Shia organization known as the S.S.P., the Sipah-e Sahaba Party (Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions), have labeled Shias kafirsthat is, infidelsand hence legitimate objects of attack by orthodox Muslims. The S.S.P. has been implicated in numerous attacks on Shia places of worship.

Despite the fact that in January President Parvez Musharraf’s government announced a ban on the S.S.P. and other militant sectarian groups within Pakistan, attacks on Shia shrines persist. Eleven worshippers at prayer died on Feb. 26, when gunmen fired on a Shia mosque in Rawalpindi. Twelve more Shias died when a bomb exploded on April 25 in the women’s section of a Shia prayer hall in the city of Bukker in the eastern Punjab.

Among the Pakistani Christians and Shias with whom I spoke, there is a shared perception that violence against minorities in recent months has worsened in response to the success of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. As the Western-backed government of Hamid Karzai has struggled to achieve a measure of stability for Afghanistan, hundreds of Taliban militants, many of them Pakistani nationals, have fled across the border to their homes in Pakistan. In the days when they still held power in Kabul, the Taliban, whose ideology derives from the most conservative and stringent forms of Sunnism, had imprisoned Christian missionaries and persecuted Afghan Shias. Now that they are back in Pakistan, as one Christian from Lahore told me, the defeated jihadis seem to be picking easy targets as a way of venting ragerage at the West in general, at the United States in particular, and at President Musharraf personally, for siding with America against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Pakistan’s Christians constitute an especially vulnerable target. In such a country, which was founded as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, where over 97 percent of the population is Islamic, to be Christian is to be susceptible to the charge that one’s patriotism and national loyalty are somehow deficient. The charge is unfairPakistan’s Christians have contributed to society at large in many ways, most notably in education, medicine and health carebut Muslim suspicions linger.

Muslim-Christian relations were strained as early as the 1980’s, when President Zia al-Haq’s Islamization program instituted blasphemy laws mandating the death penalty for anyone found guilty of disrespect for the Islamic faith. While I was in the Punjab this year, I heard stories of individual Christians being falsely denounced to the courts by grudge-bearing neighbors who accused them of dishonoring the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

Additionally, Christians in Pakistan are forbidden to proselytize. Parish workers told me of one form of entrapment they have learned to watch out for. Young Muslim zealots come by the church feigning interest in becoming Christian, testing to see whether a priest or minister can be tempted into breaking the law. Even before Zia’s time and the institution of the blasphemy laws, a stigma clung to Christians. In one town in the Punjab (I leave the town unnamed in deference to my informant’s wishes), I met an elderly gentleman who told me he had become Christian in the early 1960’s. When his neighbors heard of his conversion, they shunned him. As word spread, shopkeepers refused him business. Neighborhood boys harassed his daughters by calling out sweepers! whenever the girls ventured onto the street.

The insult is telling. Muslims I asked about this account said simply that many Christians are poor and therefore take menial jobs like sweeping floors. But a Christian from Lahore offered another perspective. Numerous Muslims in the subcontinent, he reminded me, are descended from impoverished lower-class Hindus who converted to Islam to escape the confinement of Hinduism’s caste system. Muslims are justifiably proud of Islam’s insistence on the absolute equality of all humans before God. But the past has a way of asserting itself, and caste, my informant suggested, has not altogether gone away in Muslim Pakistan. Being Christian in a Muslim country like ours, he said, generally means being at the bottom of the heap. In the eyes of some in my country, to be a Christian is to be a sweeper, that is, low-caste.

How do Pakistani Christians respond in the face of such difficulties? In private many individuals told me they would like to see the blasphemy laws and other discriminatory legislation repealed. But in public they prefer to emphasize the fact that, like other Pakistanis, they are good citizens. Thus during my time in Lahore, I saw public announcements by various church organizations proclaiming their solidarity with the national government in deploring the plight of the Palestinians and expressing support for the people of Kashmirboth of which, obviously, are issues where the country’s Christian minority might hope for common ground with Muslims.

March 24, exactly one week after the Islamabad church bombing, was Palm Sunday. That day I returned to Lahore’s Cathedral of the Resurrection for morning services. Guards were very much in evidence, patrolling the entrance gate and the high brick walls surrounding the church grounds. I’d wondered whether fear of more terrorist strikes would make parishioners stay away. (I confess I myself had hesitated to go.)

But in fact the turnout was good. There were not many foreigners, true: a few Brits, some Africans. But local Christians there were, several hundred of them, more numerous even than on the previous Sunday, as if Lahore’s Christian community wanted to show pride in its identity. The choir led us in singing Rock of Ages. This week the words of the old hymn, Let me hide myself in Thee, seemed neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but instead charged with pathos and the power of catharsis.

The sermon that morning began by recapitulating a familiar story, how Christ’s entry into Jerusalem became a path that led to his sufferings on the cross. The preacher recalled the persecution undergone by the early followers of Jesus; and this, too, was familiar. But then the sermon became explicitly topical. The preacher spoke directly of the Bahawalpur and Islamabad massacres. We don’t know if such acts will continue, he told the congregation, but we have to remember we are not walking this path alone. Christ, too, journeyed along this road, as did his early followers. And Christ journeys now, he said, with the members of this parish. This is what enables us to endure any persecution.

A moving sermon; but interesting, too, for what it left unsaid. No talk of retribution, communal self-defense or the need to capture and punish terrorists. I read into the sermon the implicit message that the protection of the Christian community must be left to the Pakistani government. This conforms to the classical Islamic concept of the dhimmi: the non-Muslim minority living under Muslim rule. Dhimmis are not permitted to use force to defend themselves, but rather are required to rely on Muslim governors for their protection.

Has any good come out of this recent violence against Pakistan’s minorities? A Catholic woman from Lahore told me that after the Bahawalpur church killings in October, Shia Muslim neighbors came to her house to convey their sympathies. They told her stories sacred to their own tradition. Fourteen centuries ago, at the Iraqi site of Karbala, soldiers of the tyrannical caliph Yazid killed in combat the Imam Husain (the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) and beheaded him. Individual local Christians of the desert did what they could to honor Husain and show reverence for his corpse after his martyrdom. A pious priest guarded the Imam’s severed head for one night in his chapel and saw the head bathed in light. Christians tried to help Imam Husain, the Shias told my Lahori informant. We remember that to this day.

In the martyrdom of Husain, Shia Islam’s history shares some affinities with Christianity: the voluntary self-sacrifice of a salvific figure, a narrative of spiritual victory arising from a death that in the eyes of the world initially seemed to represent only humiliation and defeat. Perhaps the violence to which Pakistan’s minorities have been subjected will lead to further exploration of what they share in common.

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9 years 11 months ago
Your article was most interesting,however,the SHIA'S also do discriminate against christians.In most muslim countries christians are treated as second class citizens irrespective of their status in life.Some are doctors,teachers,nurses, and,engineers.All christians are dubbed as 'SCUM BAGS'It's worse than the africian american community in the states(Prior to the 21st.century)I could give you numerous examples of attrocities against chritians in Pakistan but,I will defer.


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