A few years ago, I intended to walk into the Christmas season with fresh ambitions, and dreams. However, I was blindsided by how a season I once found comforting, and reassuring brought me fresh wounds with additional pain this year. This calendar year has unwrapped so many horrific atrocities and persecution of Christians in Pakistan because of their faith, yet the perpetrators of such vicious crimes are beyond anyone’s reach. When I urge people that sometimes acceptance is a vital part of the solution to the present calamity, I get a lot of alarming looks in Pakistan. The future of Pakistan is at stake in the fight for restoring respect for religion and basic human rights.
Last month, I was invited by the House of Lords to the launch ceremony of a report about forced conversions in Pakistan by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities (APPG). It cited academic research that estimated up to 1,000 religious-minority women and girls a year “face this fate,” described as “a national and international tragedy.” The report found that the practice of forced conversion “is flourishing” in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, owing to factors including many non-Muslim family’s poverty and an unwillingness among police, government officials, and politicians to challenge the religious authorities that oversee conversions and conduct marriages. “In the volatile politics of Pakistan, any efforts to apprehend any religious leader can be construed as an attack on Islam,” it says.
This experience was distinguished and multiplied my tiredness by a thousand: you belong to a country whose dysfunctional system, hyper-nationalism, and bureaucratic incompetence have combined not only to produce a crisis of epic proportions but also brought shame to the country. This is a country that cherishes its iconic civilisation and traditions, but is unfortunately not ready to change. Each time, the government wishes to believe that religious freedoms and the protection of the rights of minorities are guaranteed through a range of legislative, policy and administrative measures.
Neglect, loss, pain, and brokenness seems ever-present, and the raw grief will prevent many Christians from celebrating Christmas like they used to. The case certainly sounds serious. On this Christmas, many families will mourn for deep losses and economic pain in the midst of widespread persecution. And what does that persecution look like? Let me illustrate this for you. It looks like despair when a government is trying to take away your rights after rejecting the Anti-Forced Conversion and Minorities’ Protection bill. It looks like mob attacks, the lynching of colonies and Churches to force families to flee Pakistan. Perhaps, it looks like rape, abduction and forced conversion of underage Christian girls. Not to forget, it looks like Shahbaz Bhatti being killed in daylight for raising his voice for the oppressed and marginalised.
The Minorities Alliance Pakistan (MAP) has slammed forced conversions of underage girls through criminal means and demanded that the federal and provincial governments should devise uniform policies for the protection of religious minorities. Time and again throughout history, perpetrators of forced conversion have absolved themselves and justified miserliness and inaction by blaming the victims – which is heart-breaking.
I, therefore, urge you to look at the parents of forcefully converted daughters who bear the weight of trauma and loss. And their families walk for miles, queue for hours and even wait for years to wait for justice to be delivered. In recent years, ethnic and sectarian groups have used false accusations and aggression as a deliberate strategy – almost a weapon – not just to destroy human dignity but also to terrorise Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. Even the graveyards of Christians have not been spared, regular incidents of graves being vandalised have become everyday tragedies, which hardly make an appearance in the mainstream press. It still feels like a huge section of Pakistan’s public isn’t listening. Under a government that constantly trumpets the idea of an enlightened Pakistan, the focus to establish a tolerant society is scarily narrow.
The grieving families of arson attacks in Joseph Colony, Shanti Nager, Gojra and Sangla Hill are still yearning for justice. Yet, the system’s alienation urges them to “learn to live.” Ironically, Christians in Pakistan are overwhelmingly poor, mostly work in menial jobs as cleaners, labourers and farmhands. But their contributions to social sector development in Pakistan are evident in the building of educational institutions, hospitals, and health facilities throughout the country.
Despite the widespread aggression, the services of Christians in the armed forces, music, sports, civil services and in the fields of medicine, teaching and judiciary are second to none. The commendable role of Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, Wing Commander Mervyn Leslie Middlecoat, Squadron Leader Peter Christy and Maj Gen. Noel Israel Khokhar opened a new chapter in the history of Pakistan with their bravery and patriotism. Similarly, the services of Justice Alvin Bobby, Robert Cornelius, Johnson Bernard, Dr James Shera, Sister Ruth Lewis, Nadab Gill, Councillor Morris Johns, Dr. Issaic John, Miss Nicole and Dr Peter Johnson David are legendary in nation-building.
At the risk of courting accusations of paranoia, I can say with the greatest confidence that this government has become an outlier in its failure to act when the country has become a hotspot of forced conversion and a thriving industry of hate preaching continues to tarnish the ethos of Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for religious minorities. Nevertheless, the country’s international reputation has already been undermined by the inflow of intolerance, an anaemic rule of law and a poor justice system. At the heart of this crisis, we have also failed to bring an end to state-approved textbooks and curriculum which fuels an environment of religious fanaticism. Beyond the question of the government’s performance, there are serious questions to consider of the integrity of Pakistan’s public institutions, the justice system and the equitability of its laws. We need radical change – and we need it now.
Increasing persecution and discrimination based on religion should disturb us but sadly this is not the case in Pakistan. What possibly can I wish to my Christian friends on this Christmas, especially after the spirit of tolerance is wheeled off to intensive care in Pakistan, and human rights and freedom of speech are placed on a ventilator to alienate the state organs?
Dear Pakistan, I take pride in calling you my country and pray for your healing, strength and stability to defeat hatred and evil. I hope you get well soon.
The author tweets at @qamarrafiquk