Pakistani Stirrings



Friday, September 27, 2013

Pakistani Christian protests

Archbishop Justin Welby’s choice of the word “martyrs” to describe the 81 Pakistani Christians killed when their church in Peshawar was targeted by suicide bombers has raised eyebrows. It is the sort of language avoided nowadays in the secular, sceptical West, with its taken-for-granted religious freedoms, in case it makes people feel uncomfortable.

Yet in terms of Christian history the Archbishop of Canterbury’s description is surely accurate. These 81 worshippers at All Saints Anglican church, a 19th‑century colonial legacy in the Kohati Gate district of the city, died because they insisted last Sunday on practising their faith, as martyrs in all religions have done through the centuries.

In contrast to some of the more high-profile Christian martyrs, though, they were going about their religious practice quietly and without fuss, as befits a minority community of just 2.5 million (or 1.5 per cent) in a nation of 175 million that is overwhelmingly Muslim. They weren’t evangelising. They weren’t discussing missions to convert Muslims. And they weren’t falling foul of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. They were simply, in the archbishop’s words, “testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ by going to church”.

The strength of Archbishop Welby’s language reflects a wider frustration: that in the West the present appalling suffering of small, though long-established Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond has hardly made it on to the agenda. Perhaps it requires the use of a word like martyr to make people sit up and take notice.

There is, of course, a terrible irony in this apparent Western indifference and hand-wringing, as the Catholic Archbishop of Karachi, Joseph Coutts, has pointed out. He recalls the reaction he faced in Pakistan from otherwise well-disposed Muslim colleagues and friends at the time of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Why can’t you have a word with your fellow Christian, George Bush,” he was repeatedly asked, “and tell him to stop.”

In Peshawar this week, the Islamist extremist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack on All Saints, saying it was their way of responding to US drone strikes. Christian churches are seen by these fundamentalists as outposts of Western influence. 

Yet in the West itself, where Christianity may be nominally the state religion but is in reality on the wane, politicians are extremely reluctant to be seen to be taking the “Christian side”. “We don’t do God,” as Alastair Campbell infamously remarked of his closet Christian boss, Tony Blair.

So next month, when Patriarch Gregorios III, the Damascus-based leader of Syria’s besieged Catholic community, comes to London, he has been granted an interview with a junior Foreign Office minister. Though he has been so publicly engaged with tackling the Syrian crisis on the international stage, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is apparently happy to delegate the opportunity to hear at first hand why perhaps a third of Syria’s more than 2 million-strong Christian community has now fled the country as a result of being caught in the crossfire of the civil war.

“We have been talking for a long time about the persecution of Christian communities around the world,” says Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, “but no one has wanted to listen. Some thought we were exaggerating. Others said we were mad. The problem seemed to be that it was seen as politically incorrect to take too much notice of Christians suffering in case it was interpreted as casting a slur on the whole of Islam.”

Such tender consciences are a Western luxury and obscure the facts. In 2010, for example, before the current crisis was sparked by the Arab Spring, the Committee of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, an EU‑wide body, produced a report that spoke of 100 million Christians around the globe facing persecution because of their beliefs. It estimated that three quarters of all religious persecution worldwide was faced by Christians.

The word “bishops” in the name of the body issuing the warning may have caused some to suspect special pleading. But the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has lent her support. In November of last year, she told a gathering of the Lutheran Church that Christianity was “the most persecuted religion in the world”.

When challenged on their failure to speak up sufficiently loudly for religious liberty, Western statesmen tend to fall back on the excuse that the problem is more to do with geopolitics than human rights. And politics has certainly played a part. In Egypt, for example, the Coptic Christian minority, resident since Biblical times, and making up 10 per cent of the population, enjoyed a generally benign relationship with the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak (though Pope Shenouda III, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 40 years until his death in 2012, spent a decade under house arrest during the rule of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat).

While there had been a long history of low-level violence against Copts in some areas by extremist Muslim groups, determined to drive them out and so “purify” their country, the Arab Spring saw Egypt’s Christians put on the front line. They were accused by protesters of sheltering in the shadow of the deposed oppressor, and even of prospering economically thanks to his support. (In many Middle Eastern countries, the Christian minority is disproportionately middle-class, which may be another rod for their detractors to beat them with.)

A wave of disorder saw 80 Coptic churches, schools and hospitals – the latter facilities used by all, regardless of belief – attacked. Minya province in Upper Egypt has seen the worst of the violence most recently, with supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi accusing Christians of backing the army’s removal of the elected government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood thinks that the Christians were the cause of Morsi being ousted,” says Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut, scene of some of the worst violence. “But the Christians were not alone. There were 35 million who went on the streets against Morsi. Christians are being punished. We have been scapegoated.”

And that same scapegoating has been experienced by Syria’s Christians – who, too, make up around 10 per cent of the population. They had enjoyed a measure of protection in their dealings with the regime of Bashar‑al‑Assad, and before that his father Hafez. But as the civil war has intensified, they have found themselves caught between the two sides in the conflict.

Earlier this month the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, one of the few remaining places in the world where Aramaic, the language used by Jesus, is still spoken, became a battleground between fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group and Syrian government troops. Where once 5,000 Christians had lived at peace with 2,000 Muslim neighbours, murder and sectarianism stalked the streets, with echoes of an earlier conflict in Bosnia.
“Traditionally, Christians in Egypt and Syria have seen themselves as a bridge and a buffer between other communities that are often at odds,” says Neville Kyrke‑Smith. “They are often the ones who work hardest for peace and reconciliation – in Syria, between the Alawite minority who support President Assad and the Sunni Muslims of the opposition. Now it is civil war, and they refuse to take sides, everyone else sees them as their enemies.”

So bad is the situation in Syria for Christians right now that those Iraqi Christians who had fled there after the American invasion of their country saw them targeted by militias are now choosing to return home.
In one notorious attack by Sunni militants on the Catholic cathedral in Baghdad in 2010, 58 worshippers were murdered. And even though attacks are continuing against an Iraqi Christian population that has dropped from 1.4 million to 200,000 in just a decade, they are now at a lower level than in Syria and so exiles are returning.
That is the appalling choice facing Christians in the Middle East. In the same lands where Christianity first blossomed, it now faces extinction, many warn. In Saudi Arabia, with an estimated one million Christian migrant workers, there is not a single Christian church allowed.

In Pakistan, by contrast, there is at last official tolerance, though the country’s strict blasphemy laws leave the Christian minority prey to constant attack. In March of this year 178 Christian homes and two churches were torched when a 3,000-strong mob attacked Joseph Colony, near Badami Bah, Lahore, following an accusation that a 26‑year-old Christian had defamed the Prophet Mohammed.

There have been efforts to reform the blasphemy laws, especially where they are used to target Christians, but the two politicians who proposed this course of action have both been murdered by Muslim fanatics – the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in March 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, soon afterwards.

“All the indications we are receiving from our partners in the field,” says Neville Kyrke-Smith, “are that the Western policy of silence is allowing the situation to get worse rather than better.”

Pakistani Christians pray after tragedy


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pakistani Christian worshippers, some of them who survived Sunday’s suicide bombing, pray during a special mass for the victims of the bombing, at the Church where the attack took place, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Angry Pakistani Christians denounced the deadliest attack ever in this country against members of their faith. A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers outside a historic church in northwestern Pakistan.

 I work supporting persecuted Pakistani Christians and hear often the horror stories of abduction, rape, false blasphemy accusations, and murders that they suffer. However, much like the rest of the world, I have been shocked by the scale of the attack on All Saints church in Peshawar.

Estimates put the death toll from the twin suicide bombing at around 75 with over a hundred more injured, far exceeding the death toll of the Gojra attack, which was horrifying enough with eight Christians burnt to death, and also exacting far more damage than the rampage in Lahore in May this year in which a hundred Christian homes were torched.

My fear is that this attack in Peshawar could be a game changer in the persecution against Pakistani Christians. What they have been used to up until now is radical elements within their communities taking pot shots at them, usually with a false accusation of blasphemy as the pretext to destroy their property or worse, kill them.

But Peshawar differs in respect to the level of premeditation behind it and its execution by a Taliban-linked militant group. This appears to have been a carefully planned attack similar in nature to what Nigerian churches are experiencing at the hands of another militant Islamist group, Boko Haram.

I do not consider it overstepping the mark to say that a war is being waged against Christians and Christianity in Pakistan, and what concerns me immensely is reports from eyewitnesses and survivors of the Peshawar attack who say that the security forces were slow to respond and that they felt abandoned in their moment of crisis.

Grieving relatives also complained that there were not enough medical facilities or enough staff to look after the injured. One person complained to the media that his uncle died because there was no oxygen available to him. I think one reason for the high death toll is the delay in medical treatment reaching the injured but I don’t understand the reason for this as Lady Reading hospital has long experience of the volatile situation of the area and deals with similar emergencies regularly.

It is this sense of frustration that no doubt simmered in angry protesters who reportedly charged at Pakistan’s former interior minister Rehman Malik as he visited the wounded at the hospital. PakistanToday.com reports that Malik had to hide in the office of the hospital’s chief executive when he was confronted by victims’ families angry at the treatment of their loved ones.

I cannot help but question whether the wholly inadequate response to the attack was because of hatred towards Christians, an attitude which sadly prevails in Pakistani society even outside of the organised radical groups. Hatred against Christians has intensified in recent years and even the more moderate Muslims in Pakistan look upon Christian citizens as completely inferior.
Just to give you some idea, it is not uncommon for police to turn away Christian families when they come to the police station to report that their daughter has been abducted by a Muslim man, forced to convert to Islam, and then made against her will to marry this man. And when Muslims have gone on the rampage in Christian colonies causing huge amounts of destruction and even loss of life, there have been instances where charge sheets were drawn up against the Christians and not the Muslim perpetrators.

What seems so unthinkable in Western countries I am sad to say is not so unthinkable in Pakistan, where life is nothing short of dangerous for religious minorities. The UK’s former defence minister Liam Fox said Pakistan was the most dangerous country on earth and I would have to agree with him there, certainly for Christians at least.

The Peshawar attack has shattered any pretence of it being otherwise, something that should trouble parties like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Therek Pakistan and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which both ran their election campaigns with the promise to make Quaid’s Pakistan – a place where, as our founding father said, Pakistanis would be equal without any distinction of colour, race or religion. How far we are from that vision.

Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi is among the Muslim leaders who have condemned the Peshawar attack. Ashrafi, who is considered very supportive of Christians, has criticised any justification of violence against Christians as some sort of jihad, as Christians have not lifted their arms against Muslims. He has also demanded that the Pakistani government tell the public on what grounds they are engaging in dialogue with the Taliban and how they are going to deal with attacks like these that have not been halted despite the talks.

How sincere is the Taliban about peace in Pakistan if their network in the country is continuing to be involved in horrific attacks like Peshawar? And the Pakistani government’s conduct leaves a lot to be desired too. Either it does not understand the gravity of the situation or is intentionally ignoring the reality as there is no justification whatsoever for holding talks with the Taliban when no ceasefire on terrorist attacks has been put in place. The government should have made this a first condition for any dialogue.
Malik may have been chased into a hospital office for refuge but I can at least appreciate his criticism against the Pakistani government that it has been too soft in its approach to militants and that they should be dealing with militants an iron hand.

No one has ever been punished for provoking hatred against Christians, which acts as a great encouragement to radicals. Instead of Quaid’s Pakistan, Christians have had to watch over the decades as their rights were steadily eroded while the Islamisation of the country took hold and Sharia law started to be enforced against them with increasing zeal. The laws and the policies that were adopted in the past by the military in the name of national security or by dictators to justify and prolong their rule have resulted in religious intolerance, extremism, sectarianism and hate against non-Muslims, a toxic combination that is only fuelling an unbroken cycle of violence against Christians.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have to answer some embarrassing questions at the United Nations General Assembly about the situation of Christians in light of the Peshawar attack, but for our political leaders, no amount of embarrassment seems to be enough to provoke them into genuine action to eradicate extremism from the country. They may be red-faced for a moment in international meetings and mumble out some kind of tautological commitment to improving the human rights situation, but once they are comfortably back on Pakistani soil it will be business as usual.

With so little prospect for change inside Pakistan, my hope is lying increasingly with the international community, which should challenge the country’s leaders and use trade and diplomacy wherever possible to make them do what is right.

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