The South Asia Channel
Persecution Without Prosecution: The Fate of Minorities in Pakistan
With religious persecution in Pakistan going unchecked, it is time for the United States to designate Pakistan a Country of Particular Concern.
On Sunday morning, March 15th, 22-year-old Akash Bashir volunteered to guard the gates outside of St. John’s Catholic Church in Lahore, Pakistan. As the service drew to a close, an armed gunman strapped with explosives sprinted towards the entrance, firing at the gate. Bashir and a fellow security volunteer managed to knock the attacker over. When the man tried to get up, Bashir tackled him, hugging him tightly as he set off his explosives a few moments later. Fifteen were killed, including Bashir, in twin suicide bombings that day, but witnesses said if not for Bashir’s bravery, the numbers would have been far worse.
The story of Bashir’s heroism has, for the most part, never made it out of Pakistan. What has trickled into the West’s consciousness are only bits and pieces of the deadly tales of Pakistan’s religious minorities: 93 Ahmadi worshipers killed in 2010; 80 Christians slaughtered at the All Saints Church in 2013; 60 Shiite Muslims murdered at a mosque in Sindh in January; 43 Ismaili’s gunned down inside a bus last month. The stories are horrific, but they hardly begin to convey the pervasive sense of dread that the nearly 40 million members of Pakistan’s religious minority communities live with on a daily basis.
The problem has become so serious that religious minorities are fleeing the country in droves. As many as 10,000 Pakistani Christians (but official United Nations’ figures say 4,000) are now believed to be living “under the radar” in Thailand, fending off arrest by Thai police for illegal entry as they cling to the hope of making it through the grueling U.N. refugee resettlement process. International Christian Concern’s offices — an NGO that assists Christians who have been the victims of religious persecution — routinely get calls from Pakistanis around the globe pleading for help as they try to find any possible avenue of escape from an endless cycle of violence and discrimination.
The tragedy in all of this is not simply the scale of human suffering, but the one-sided response of the Pakistani government. In 2013, thousands of enraged Sunni Muslim’s rampaged through the Christian neighborhood of Joseph Colony in Lahore, torching over 100 homes after a Christian man was accused of committing “blasphemy” against Islam. In the two years since, not a single individual from the mob has been convicted. Meanwhile the Christian accused of blasphemy, Sawan Masih, was arrested and sentenced to death, a penalty that is mandatory by order of the Federal Shariat Court. This example is consistent with a long-running pattern of prosecuting religious minorities while allowing those who persecute them to escape justice.
Sawan Masih’s case is also an example of another seemingly intractable issue — Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. Strengthened in the early 1980s under the rule of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, thousands have since been arrested and imprisoned under the draconian legislation, often used as an excuse to settle personal scores or whip up religious fervor against marginalized minorities. There are currently 14 people on death row for blasphemy, including at least four Christians, while another 19 people are serving life sentences. Those who are actually arrested for blasphemy are often the lucky ones. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 60 individuals have been murdered, often by mob violence, since 1990 before they could even be convicted of this so-called “crime.” In 2014, a young Christian couple pregnant with their fifth child was burned alive in a brick kiln by an enraged mob over a blasphemy accusation.
The answer to all of this, at least from the United States’ perspective, is staggeringly simple. The U.S. State Department should use its authority to designate Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), a recommendation has been made repeatedly by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The designation, which according to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act must be applied to any nation that “engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom” is the single most powerful message the United States can send to a country which consistently fails to protect religious minorities. The United States could then institute economic sanctions and other penalties until Pakistan reforms its policies, putting the appalling treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan at the front and center of U.S-Pakistan relations. Pakistan fits the definition of a CPC more so than any other nation on Earth, with perhaps the exception of North Korea. The United States is committed, both legally and morally, to uphold this fundamental right of religious freedom and do everything possible to stop the bloodshed. The United States must stop willfully turning a blind eye to the purification of all of Pakistan’s religious minorities and must utilize this crucial tool of U.S. foreign policy. Unless the Pakistani state, civilian and military, puts all its efforts into reforming laws to provide equality and protection to all its citizens, Pakistan must and should be designated a CPC, for the sake of the people of Pakistan.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images