by Shakeeb Asrar, USA Today
The Easter bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, that killed 70 last month is one of many recent attacks targeting Christians in the country, but terrorism is far from the only threat to the nation’s oppressed minority.
A breakaway Taliban faction claimed responsibility for the March 27 attack on a park crowded with families. The group said it specifically targeted Pakistan’s Christian community, although most of the victims ended up being Muslims. The same militants took credit for twin bombings of a Christian church in Lahore last year.
Beyond major attacks by terror groups, including several other church explosions in the past few years, Pakistan’s 3 million Christians face economic marginalization and persecution at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.
The minority represents about 1.6% of the country’s population and mostly resides in the urban areas of Pakistan, concentrated in major cities like Karachi and Lahore. Yet an overwhelming majority are confined to the low-paying, menial jobs of sanitary or domestic work.
“I have been denied promotions several times because I am Christian,” said Liaqat James, 36, an office worker at a private company in the province of Punjab. “They won’t tell you directly but you know why you are being kept behind others. I have close relatives who were denied jobs in the public and private sector only because they were Christians.”
Under Pakistani law, government institutes must reserve 5% of jobs for minorities, but Nazir S. Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress calls the decree a “mockery” for Christians.
In 2015, a government hospital in Lahore caused an uproar among human rights activists after its job advertisement reserved sanitary work for non-Muslims. Similar incidents have been reported in other parts of the country.
Today, most Christian men work in sanitation, while Christian women majorly work as domestic maids. About 95% of Pakistani Christians are involved with sanitary or domestic work, Bhatti said.
“Over two generations, my family has worked as domestic help. This is not shameful for us, but we do feel at times that we as Christians are pigeon-holed into doing these lowly jobs,” said Shabana Masih, a domestic helper in Lahore.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law creates another set of problems for Christians in the country. The law, which carries a death penalty for anyone defaming Islam, is often taken by fundamentalists into their own hands, resulting in attacks on the accused before they even go to trial.
In 2013, a charged mob set dozens of houses ablaze in a Christian neighborhood in Lahore after a Christian man living in the area was accused of blasphemy. In a similar incident in 2015, a Christian couple was beaten and burnt to death in a village after a local mosque claimed they desecrated a copy of the Quran.
“(Blasphemy laws) are being used as a tool of revenge, sometimes between different religious groups, but also as a way of settling scores or trying to get an economic or financial advantage over a targeted minority,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, commissioner at United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who visited Pakistan in 2015 as part of the organization’s delegation.
The government’s enforcement of such laws and its failure to stop wrongful convictions of blasphemy only encourages the intolerant environment, Swett said. Pakistan holds more convicts of blasphemy in jail than any other country in the world, she added.
“The blasphemy laws are truly being abused, and there are no credible threats of prosecution for false or ill-fated accusations,” Swett said.
Some Christians say they live in fear of clashing with religious radicals whether they are militants launching attacks or Islamic fundamentalists taking the law into their own hands.
“My family is scared and then there is no security even in mosques, let alone the churches,” James said. “We haven’t been going to the church for the last two Sundays ever since the attacks (on Easter).”
The government has taken steps to confront the country’s religious intolerance. Soon after the Easter bombing, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared on TV screens across the nation and vowed to fight extremist mindsets in the country, promising to avenge “every drop of blood of our victims.”
In March, the National Assembly adopted a resolution to declare minority religious festivals public holidays, including Easter.
And Pope Francis accepted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan, according to the country’s new agencies. The trip is set to take place sometime this year and will mark the first papal visit to Pakistan since Pope John Paul II visited in 1981 and became the first pontiff to travel there.
While such moves are good steps forward, Swett said, they aren’t enough to turn the tide against religious intolerance in Pakistan.
“We encourage them, we appreciate them, but they are by no means sufficient,” she said. “When you are talking about changing the unhealthy spirit and narrative that is taking hold in too many segments of the radicalized part of the majority population, it will require effort that covers the waterfront. “
Contributing: Naila Inayat in Lahore, Pakistan.