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WEA-RLC: Saving Pakistan’s Christians

April 1, 2011

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report

March 30, 2011
Pakistan is rightly in the spotlight of Christian rights groups after last month’s assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and Minister of Minority Affairs, for his efforts to repeal the notorious blasphemy law. Despite severe criticism by the international community that followed, nothing has changed. Attacks on the Christian and other minorities continue, the latest being this week’s killing of two Christian men in Hyderabad.

The government of Pakistan is a strategic ally of the United States in the Operation Enduring Freedom in neighbouring Afghanistan, an integral part of the war against terror. But large numbers of Pakistani Muslim clerics and powerful sections of the military and the intelligence wing Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have had the ambition of seeking a key role in the affairs of the Muslim world.

Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah had a vision of stability, law and order and protection of all religious communities when the nation was formed in 1947. But the sixth president General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who captured power by a coup in 1977, Islamized the country. Anti-blasphemy clauses were added to the Pakistan Penal Code under his regime. And the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resultant growth of the Mujahedeen movement also took place during his rule.

Although successive rulers were far more moderate and liberal, they did not dare to make efforts to rid the country of extremism thanks to the clout the conservative sections had acquired. The political expediency carries on till today.

In the run up to the 2008 general election, Asif Ali Zardari – now the president – had promised to revoke the blasphemy law. However, after Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed for calling the blasphemy law a black law on January 4, 2011, Zardari’s government announced the withdrawal of member of National Assembly Sherry Rehman’s private bill to amend the law. Less than two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a strong voice against the law, was killed.

The blasphemy law is dear to Islamic extremists and jihadi terrorists mainly because it is a symbol of what they want Pakistan to be, irrespective of its practical utility. The significance of this law is to be seen in light of a strong sense of loss of Islamic identity that has gripped the extremist elements.

The vote-share of Islamists in politics is negligible in Pakistan, and the government is gradually showing more commitment in fighting the Pakistani Taliban – especially since the Pakistani military raid on the Lal Masjid, an extremist mosque and madrassas in the capital city of Islamabad, in July 2007 on the behest of the United States. This has made the extremists and terrorists extremely anxious.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently wrote a book, “The Morning and the Lamp,” asking the people of the country to wage a war against the “un-Islamic,” “apostate” State of Pakistan, arguing that the country’s Constitution was not based on Islam. The recent surge of extremist and jihadi violence in Pakistan is apparently a result of terrorists’ complete loss of confidence in the State.

Seen as a mark of Pakistan’s future by the jihadists, the blasphemy law may remain. And so may justification of violence and persecution of minorities in the name of protecting Islam. The government of President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is a minority government, and not at the helm of affairs.

Over the years, extremists and supporters of terrorists have infiltrated most democratic institutions and State agencies – including the executive, the military, the intelligence, the police and the judiciary – as well as mosques and madrassas, which have a considerable influence over sections of the Pakistani society. For example, Pakistan’s Tourism Minister Maulana Attaur Rehman is known to be a supporter of the Taliban. Recently, he made a public statement that the Taliban were the true believers of Islamic ideology, and the US the “biggest terrorist.”

The fractured government’s control is limited to civic and some financial matters – that, too, as long as there is no clash with the interests of the extremists. The Taliban in Pakistan openly runs schools to indoctrinate youth and train them in making bombs and suicide attacks. Terrorist groups, such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, openly operate through registered trusts under different names and conduct courses on jihad.

While the Pakistani government has chosen to close its eyes on extremists’ activities to remain in power, the United States has its efforts focused on military operations and, to some extent, on promotion of democracy and development. But there is no visible effort to tackle the problem at its root, which is the spread of extremist and jihadist doctrines. This is why Pakistan has become a sanctuary for terrorists and extremists from all over the world.

Now, it is being reported that the next big targets of the jihadi terrorists are Sherry Rehman, a liberal Muslim from the ruling party, and Joseph Francis, a Christian lawyer who heads the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Jihadists had issued a threat to Ms. Rehman, saying if she did not withdraw her bill to amend the blasphemy law before January 6, 2011, she would be killed. However, they assassinated her friend, Governor Salman Taseer, instead on January 4, followed by Shahbaz Bhatti on March 2 for their advocacy for Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi who had been convicted by a trial court for blasphemy.

Ms. Rehman has reportedly confined herself to her home and her travel plans are being kept secret. However, Joseph Francis does not have the resources to guard himself against the threat. But, keeping in mind that terrorists target mainly those who can give them publicity, the Christian media must not create hype about the threat to Francis, as that could be counter-productive.

As far as routine attacks on local Christians are concerned, they are carried out mainly by Islamic extremists who have support of and connections with terror groups, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). Given the corruption in and the weakness of the government and its agencies, protecting the Christians is a big challenge.

However, first and foremost, local Christians should be encouraged to take all threats very seriously. They should promptly seek police protection and take all possible precautionary measures as soon as they apprehend trouble. For attacks invariably follow threats, and killings follow minor attacks and conflicts. In many instances, the attackers have returned to kill within hours or days.

Then, a long-term approach should be adopted to tackle the root of the violence.

Washington must be lobbied to seek the expansion of the US operations in Pakistan to include efforts to counter Islamic extremism and jihadi terrorism ideologically. The growth of extremist mosques, madrassas and clergy must be checked. Stepping up of the Drone strikes alone will not help. The US must also push the Pakistan Army and intelligence to destroy the breeding grounds of extremism. Besides, the US must begin to support and empower liberal Sunni Muslim groups to position themselves as an alternative to the extremist ideologies.

Let us keep Pakistani Christians in our prayers as they face an unprecedented wave of persecution.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogaraja. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.
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