Punjab is a highly populated province where most Christians reside. There are many Christian institutes, schools, and churches in the region. Yet, the community becomes a victim of persecution, blasphemy, abduction, killing, and murder. The discrimination faced by Christians in rural Punjab is largely underreported.
Christians are the second largest minority group in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 1.59 percent of the total population of Christians are living in Pakistan, a majority are living in Punjab (2.31 percent) out of which 1.87 percent live in Rural Punjab, and 3.27 percent live in the urban part of Punjab.
I recently met some Christian families in Sheikhupura, Punjab, who shockingly deny being Christians and identify as Muslims. They have abandoned their Christian names and have adopted the Muslim ones.
“I changed my name because I faced discrimination by the instructors of Islamiyat classes in school,” says forty-year-old Saba Kamran*. “I have started to wear a hijab so people can’t find out more about me. My life has become much easier,” she adds.
Her husband, Asmat Ullah*, worked in a cement factory where all the employees were Muslims. He was the only Christian. “I was always discriminated against because of my faith, and some of the Muslim employees used to harass me and make slogans to tease me. I resigned from the job in 2012,” he says.
Thereafter, Asmat Ullah adopted a Muslim lifestyle. “I wear shalwar kameez on Jumas and pretend to be a ‘fake’ Muslim, so that my office staff feels I’m a Muslim.”
Saba and Asmat have given their three children Muslim names. “We have strictly instructed them to never disclose their religion,” he says.
“I was always discriminated against because of my faith, and some of the Muslim employees used to harass me and make slogans to tease me. I resigned from the job in 2012,” he says.
Ayesha Sohail* started wearing an abaya and hijab when she was in school. “My mother suggested I cover myself in school and college like other Muslim girls. Since then my life has been free of discrimination and harassment, as no one in my class knows I am a Christian. I take Islamic Studies classes with them and pretend to be a Muslim,” she adds.
A young Christian boy, who works in a clothing factory, says that he is proud to be a Christian, “But because of my faith, I often face challenges.” He used to wear a cross till some time ago. He stopped wearing it because Muslims would ask weird questions on seeing it around his neck.
He adds that he was discriminated against at different forums because of the holy cross — as it distinguished him as a minority among the majority. “I don’t wear it anymore. Now all the groups welcome me.”
Christians living in rural Punjab feel insecure. They have learned to not reveal their religious identity to others living around them. Whenever the majority comes to know about the identity of a minority in lower Punjab, they treat them dishonorably.
After adopting such a lifestyle, Christians may live a life of peace but sadly they have lost their freedoms to exercise religion.
*Note: The names of the interviewees and the author have been changed to protect their identities.
The blog has been published in collaboration with Ravadar – a series that documents the lives of religious minorities in Pakistan.