Pakistani Christians and the Myth of Clash of Civilizations

By Dil Nawaz:
Pakistan as a postcolonial republic having connections with British Commonwealth and an Islamic-oriented constitution , has shown a strong sense of religio-national identity, i.e being a Pakistani is equated with being a Muslim. The religious disputes have often led to violence which invariably results in the imprisonment or deaths of minority Christians,Hindus,Ahmadis or burning of their places of worship and property.

There is evidence of Christian missionaries travelling to India as early as 16th century but Christian institutions came to the part of India which is now Pakistan in the early part of 19th century through Catholic Capuchin Friars and Church of England missionaries who were given permission evangelize in the British cantonments. The Anglican hierarchy was established from London in 1877 when Rev. Thomas Valpy was appointed the first Bishop of Lahore. The Church of Pakistan is the result of the union of four denominations: Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian (Scottish), which took place in 1970[2].

In May 1997, the Catholic FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference) issued a ninety-five page document titled The Spirit at Work in Asia, the fruit of a two-year study made by a select group of Asian theologians[1]. The document notes,

‘Islam is the most widespread representative of biblical religiosity in Asia. As for Christianity, it cannot claim more than three percent of Asians as its followers. The Jews are even less in number. The tragedy about them is that a bloody violence marks their relationship in many parts of our continent. The counter-witness, which Israel and Palestine have projected about the God of their ancestors, is mirrored also in the relationship between Muslims and Christians. As a consequence of this scandal, Asia has been deprived of an authentic knowledge and appreciation of agapeic religiosity so characteristic of biblical religions. Love (ahab,agape), which is the power that creates things out of nothing and resurrects the dead.’ It continues in a conciliatory tone of emphasis on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, ‘[To] introduce an authentic harmony and initiate a creative collaboration between these two ‘people of the book’[Islamic] (ahl al-kita).’

The current President of Pakistan received his early education in St. Patrick’s School in Karachi Sindh while the Prime Minister was educated in Da La Salle School in Punjab (both the President and the Prime Minister are Muslim but Christian schools remain popular with Muslim elite because of their high standards).

The Catholic Church in Pakistan runs 534 schools, 53 hostels, 8 colleges, 7 technical institutes and 8 catechetical centers[3].Pakistan’s approximately 2.8 million Christians constitute about 2 percent of the country’s 180 million people and are most concentrated in the province of Punjab. Christians are split evenly between Catholics and Protestants. Almost all embraced Christianity in mass conversions from Hinduism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in an effort to escape their status as “untouchables” (now referred to as Dalits).

Christianity may have removed their religious stigma, but the churches did little to alter their economic marginalization. Most of these people still live in segregated Christian villages on some of the country’s least productive land, or they have been forced to trade rural poverty for urban life in decrepit Christian bastis(ghettos)[4].

In this ‘two-tier’ social setup, middle class Anglicans were generally better off than the Catholic peasantry. The urban middle class Christians were able to find mid-level jobs in the British-Indian army, railways, education and the health sectors because of their educational and family background. Families of urban poor usually ended up working as domestic workers, janitors and garbage collectors-professions usually shunned by Muslims due to lack of “Islamic notion of cleanliness.”

Amjad-Ali points out that Christians of Pakistan were neither people with whom agreement like Meesaq-e- Medina[5] was made, nor were they captured people whom Islamic forces had taken over, i.e. dhimmi. Rather, one day they were an equal part of British India alongside the Muslims, and on the day of independence, 14th of August 1947 relegated to dhimmi status.

Often the Hindu Dalit tribes in Sindh and their Christian counterparts in rural Punjab were (in some areas still are) held as bonded labourers by their Muslim landlords in lieu of family’s payment to the loan sharks who work in cahoots with the landlords.In 1980s the Anglican and the Catholic clergy started working with community based organizations like Bonded Labourer Liberation Front of Pakistan. This unusual move was seen as an extension of the clerical concern for pastoral care. There was a realization that indigenous leadership cannot be developed by relying on structures, theology and practices which up to that time were modeled on the western ecclesial hierarchy.

Although Pakistan does not officially impose any Jizya on the Christians but provisions have been made in the constitutional arrangements to bar them from holding the office of President or Prime Minister. Other extra-constitutional restrictions imposed in the past include separate electorate for non-Muslims in 1980s and forced nationalization of Christian schools and hospitals in 1970s.

The Islamization of Pakistani society, culture, polity, economics, and the overall identity of the nation grew in fits and starts between 1956-1977. However in 1977 things changed radically with the imposition martial law by General. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and since that point in time Islamization began to dominate the state in Pakistan.

The Christians, as a sizable minority has three distinct characteristics which are seen as threatening to the Islamic identity:

1. Christianity is seen as a western religion, thus all Christians are a fifth column of the west dwelling inside the Islamic domain and therefore their loyalty is always suspected.

2. Christians are most visibly liberal and educated part of a growing middle class. Christians are threatening because they are also people of influence and have been associated for a long time with socio-economic, educational and cultural institutions: they run schools and hospitals which are seen (by fundamentalist Muslims) as a platform for proselytizing. Their property, intellectual and cultural influence is always seen as a threat, so they must be stopped.

3. Because they belong to the religion of the West, anything that is done to them gets “overblown,” “over-articulated, and/or “over publicized.”

The state of Pakistan’s inaction in providing protection to its citizens, allows communal tensions and religious atrocities to flourish–such as the 1997 incident in Shantinagar, where an anti-Christian riot left approximately 15,000 Christians homeless and the killing of 7 Christians in Gojra in 2009, where more than 50 houses were burnt and the people were terrorized on the pretext of alleged desecration the Holy Quran (which in fact never took place).

The fight of Pakistani Christians against the blasphemy law is symbolized by three ‘martyrs’. Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Pakistan shot himself to death on May 6 1998 to highlight the case of Ayub Massih, a Christian sentenced to death. In a letter sent to a local newspaper just before his death, the bishop stated that he hoped his suicide would galvanize his fellow bishops and others to work for the repeal of sections 295 B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC)[6].

The infamous section 295-C also known as the “blasphemy law” was enacted in 1986. It stipulates that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet … either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputations, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly … shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” In 1990 the Federal Shari’a [Islamic law] Court ruled that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet … is death and nothing else.”

On 4th of January 2011, the influential governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer [a Muslim], was killed by one of his bodyguards. The police guard said he killed him because Mr. Taseer spoke in favour of amendments to the blasphemy law and had appealed for presidential pardon for the 45 year old Christian mother of five, an illiterate farm worker, Mrs. Asiya Bibi.

On 2nd of March 2011, Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti [a Catholic] was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. Tehrik-i-Taliban told BBC Urdu they carried out the attack, adding “This man was a known blasphemer of the Prophet [Muhammad].We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same.”

Between 1927 and 1986 there had been only seven reported cases of blasphemy. However, 1986 onwards as many as 4,000 cases have been reported. Between 1988 and 2005, Pakistani authorities charged 647 people with offences under the Blasphemy Laws. More than 30 people have been murdered for alleged blasphemy[7]. The motives are compounded by personal enmities, property disputes, petty jealousies, professional and economic rivalries, or struggles for political advantage[8].

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali (born in Pakistan) resigned as the Anglican Bishop of Rochester to setup the Oxford Centre for Training Research Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD).He highlighted the need of supporting the persecuted Churches through theological education, debate and development of Christian leadership. He called for building partnerships with Muslims, respecting Islam and understanding Islamic Sharia law which will help in resistance against the forces of Islamic extremism who are directly responsible for persecution of Christians. One example is to lobby for reforming the educational curriculum in mainstream schools as well as Islamic seminaries of Pakistan.

Bishop Nazir-Ali’s book Conviction and Conflict: Islam, Christianity and World Order (2006), looks at the history and future of inter-faith relations in a multicultural world. In Pakistan, Christian Study Centre Rawalpindi has worked as an ecumenical institute for research and advocacy centre for inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Muslims (Dialogue of Hearts) and a resource centre for human and women rights organizations and NGOs working for social and economic development of poor sections of the society (Dialogue of Life)[9].

The National Commission for Justice and Peace was formed in 1985 by the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference. NCJP have provided its services in the field of advocacy of human rights beyond religious and other discrimination. It has six regional offices and the head office at Lahore, which provide legal aid and human rights education[10].

The first Catholic Pakistani satellite TV ‘Good News TV’ began broadcasting in January 2010. Archbishop Pinto called the launch of Catholic TV “a historic day for the Catholic Church in Pakistan.” “Television will truly herald the Good News; it will be a source of harmony and a bridge to shorten distances between people”. Notable Muslims and Protestants in Pakistan have also sent congratulatory messages, hoping that it “will bring a positive change in society.” The stated aim is “to transform the information landscape of Pakistan”[11].
The religious environment for the institutions as well as the common folks in Pakistan remains highly unstable and at times dangerous, yet the interviewees affirmed their belief in identity both as loyal Pakistani citizens and committed Christians.There seems to be a glimmer of hope for peaceful inter-faith relations in Pakistan.

The author is a researcher on religion and minorities’ rights at the National University of Ireland and can be contacted on

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