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25 October 2012

Religious Liberty in Pakistan

Religious Liberty in Pakistan

The eyes of the world turned to Pakistan this month after 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on 9 October for speaking out against the denial of education for girls. Pakistan is a country of over 176 million; 96% Muslim and 2.5% Christian, the largest of their religious minorities. Release International explain that Pakistanis face political instability, poverty and violence, and the promise of equal rights for religious minorities by the founder of Pakistan has not been realised. Christians in particular face great poverty and marginalisation; Christian women are often forced to take low-paid work, the majority of bonded labourers in Punjab are Christian, and there has been a number of cases of abduction of Christian women and girls for conversion and marriage to Muslims. Great social and economic disadvantages also face minority Muslim sects, women and the poor. 

In their 2012 World Watch Rank Open Doors ranks the country tenth, describing Christians in Pakistan as: "a beleaguered minority caught between Islamic militant organisations that routinely target them for violence and an Islamising culture that discriminates against them. Death threats are routine for church leaders, beatings are common, and damage to church property occurs on a monthly basis. Christians cannot rely on government or the military to protect them."

Another young girl, Rimsha Masih, is a Christian charged with desecrating the Qur'an under section 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code. She was arrested in August 2012, despite having Down's syndrome and being between 11 and 14-years-old. She was released on 8 September after witnesses came forward saying they had seen pages of the Qur'an planted by a Muslim cleric in the ashes she was carrying. However Rimsha remains afraid for her life, under armed guard, and has not had her charges dropped. On 17 October the High Court in Islamabad adjourned her trial until 14 November.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) highlight that Rimsha's case is different from other vulnerable Christians accused of blasphemy, in that high-level Muslim clerics have made a public call for justice. This shift from respected religious leaders is a positive step forward, although limited given that the All Pakistan Ulema Council only criticised 'mis-use' of the laws, not suggesting repeal or reform. Many minority communities live in fear of blasphemy accusations destroying their lives, with the frequency of new blasphemy cases failing to decrease. 

CSW Chief Executive Officer Mervyn Thomas said on 7 September: "(Rimsha's) case is far from resolved – we urge the Pakistani authorities to ensure the family's safety and to be alert to signs of potential religiously-motivated violence targeting Christian communities. We urge the court to process Rimsha's case without delay and the police-led investigation team to use its position to highlight both the multiple injustices present in this instance and broader concerns surrounding the application of Pakistan's blasphemy laws."

Another recent case is that of 16-year-old Christian Ryan Stanten who faces the death penalty for Pakistan's most serious blasphemy offence. His home was ransacked by a Muslim mob accusing him of sending a blasphemous text message on 9 October, and reports say that his mother has also been dismissed from her job. In addition Release International reported on 16 October that Islamist extremists have abused and forcibly converted a 20-year-old Christian student from Jhang district, leaving him mentally disturbed and unable to speak coherently.

CSW explain that the root causes of discriminatory attitudes in Pakistan need addressing, with bias against religious minorities permeating Pakistan's national curriculum. They also describe the need to tackle hate speech so that those who call for violence and promote hateful messages are held to account and punished, deterring others from doing the same.

Please pray for Pakistan, particularly:

  • for Malala, Rimsha, Ryan, the beaten student and all those suffering persecution and discrimination in Pakistan
  • for the release of all wrongly held or imprisoned
  • for organisations seeking to help, encourage and bring justice for religious minorities, including Open Doors, CSW, Release International and the Barnabus Fund
  • for changes to the root attitudes of discrimination in Pakistan and elsewhere
  • praising God for the growing Christian population in Pakistan