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Pakistan's Christian Minority Faces Life On Increasingly Dangerous Margins

Pakistani Christians protesting the September 22 suicide bombings at Peshawar's All Saints Church, which left more than 80 dead.
Pakistani Christians protesting the September 22 suicide bombings at Peshawar's All Saints Church, which left more than 80 dead.
The ancestors of most Pakistani Christians were oppressed, low-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity in the 1800s when European evangelists spread the Christian gospel on the subcontinent under British colonial rule.

In the 21st century, Pakistani Christians face discrimination from the law of the land as well as threats of violence in a country where 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Romana Bashir, the head of Peace and Development Foundation -- a minority rights organization in the northern city of Rawalpindi -- says Christians have become marginalized during the past four decades as the spread of Shari'a law has resulted in discriminatory legislation and slowly excluded non-Muslims from general society.

Bashir says Pakistan's blasphemy laws make it dangerous for non-Muslim religious minorities to express themselves freely or engage openly in religious activities.

Moreover, she says, the laws are frequently misused by Muslims who have a personal dispute with a Christian or want to settle a vendetta -- a powerful tool, as the laws prescribe the death penalty for actions seen as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran.

Other laws in Pakistan prevent non-Muslims from assuming high political offices and deprive them of competing in mainstream politics. Bashir says even the school curriculum in Pakistan encourages the hatred of non-Muslims by stereotyping them as enemies of Pakistan.

"I think the cumulative effects of these [laws and practices] have led many people to experience fear and an inferiority complex within Pakistani society," she said. "Issues like these are also the root causes of why Christians live in fear and feel insecure."

Frequent Targets

Pakistani Christians struggle economically as well, with most living in poverty. Some have managed to obtain jobs as teachers or nurses. But street-cleaning and sanitation jobs -- occupations that many Muslims consider "unclean" -- are seen as the traditional employment for the country's Christians.

There are just over 3 million Christians now living in Pakistan, compared to more than 180 million Muslims and fewer than 2.5 million Hindus.

Most of Pakistan's Christians are concentrated in the eastern province of Punjab, but small communities are also dispersed throughout other areas that once hosted British military outposts.

PHOTO GALLERY: Christian Service At The All Saints Church In Peshawar

Punjab Province is where most of the worst violence against the Pakistan's Christian community has taken place.

That includes a rampage in 1997 by a large Muslim mob that burned down an entire Christian village, leaving its 20,000 residents homeless.

It also includes a wave of violence on March 9, 2013, when a Muslim mob burned down more than 170 houses, 16 shops, and two churches in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, the Punjab capital.

It later emerged that the violence was sparked by a Muslim man who, seeking to escalate a dispute with a Christian acquaintance, accused him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Extremist Focus

The double suicide bombing at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, has stoked fears and concerns that anti-Christian violence is spreading beyond Punjab.

The Peshawar bombings killed at least 81 people, making it the worst attack against Peshawar's Christian community in a century and one of the deadliest attacks in years against Christians anywhere in the country.

A faction of Pakistan's umbrella Taliban movement, Junood ul-Hifsa, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it was to avenge U.S. drone strikes in the country's tribal areas.

Martin Javed Miachal is the chairman of the Pakistan Christian Movement. He told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that Christians have become so frightened in Pakistan that thousands are leaving the country every year -- with most going to refugee camps in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.

He described the lives of Pakistani Christians as "hopeless and helpless," adding, "Our future in Pakistan is very dark."

Peter Jacob is a Christian lawyer in Pakistan who heads a Roman Catholic organization called the National Commission for Peace and Justice.

Even before the deadly September 22 attack in Peshawar, Jacob had counted more than 120 attacks against Christians in Pakistan since 1997.

Jacob says most recent attacks against Pakistani Christians have been carried out by angry mobs -- making the violence more communal than extremist.
But there have been other Islamic extremist attacks against Pakistan's Christians -- raising concerns that the Peshawar bombings could be a harbinger for more extremist violence to come.

Already, Christians are organizing street protests in several parts of Pakistan where they say the government is not doing enough to protect their communities.

Written by Ron Synovitz, based on reporting by RFE/RL correspondents Abubakar Siddique and Majeed Khan.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.