LAHORE, Pakistan — The minuscule Christian minority is facing increasing threats and harassment in Muslim majority Pakistan as fallout of the fundamentalist forces trying to assert their political clout.
“These developments are the result of the attempts of the extremist forces to gain political power and authority,” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, said in a telephone interview July 2.
Archbishop Saldanha was reacting to recent incidents of Christians being threatened to convert to Islam or face death. The threats have been expressed on public posters as well as personal letters sent to Christians.
Christians of the Shantinagar area of the Khanewal district in Punjab province received anonymous letters June 12 in which they were given the ultimatum to convert, leave the area or face consequences. The letters had been addressed to pastors of different denominations, political leaders and social leaders of the seven villages with majority Christian population.
Earlier in May, Islamic fundamentalists had publicly threatened the entire community of 500 Christians in the tribal areas of Charsadda and Mardan in the North-West Frontier Province to convert or shut their churches and migrate from their native villages.
The threats were painted even on church walls, forcing some of the scared families to flee the area. Many of the Christian families also transported their women out of the villages due to fear of rape that is often used against the minorities.
With an eye on forthcoming elections, Archbishop Saldanha pointed out that Islamic fundamentalists were trying to assert their supremacy and target Christians, as well as what they call “un-Islamic” practices ahead of their plans to enforce Shariah (Islamic rule).
As a result, even owners of barber shops, as well as shops selling music and videos, have been forced to shut or have been harassed, especially in fundamentalist strongholds like the North-West Frontier Province. Barbershop owners were harassed because under Taliban-style Islam, men are not supposed to shave but let their beards grow.
“Fundamentalist groups are trying to enforce Shariah in the tribal areas under Taliban influence,” Archbishop Saldanha said. “They see Christians as a hindrance to this agenda and so, we are being targeted in their bid to establish political authority.”
Asked whether the situation is going from bad to worse, the archbishop said: “This is a new phase in Pakistan. Certainly, the climate of intolerance is growing.”
Following the public threats to the Christians in the North-West Frontier Province, the National Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church said in a press statement the threats to the Christian community at Charsadda and Mardan demonstrated “the escalation of religious intolerance in the country.”
More than 95% of Pakistanis are Muslims. Christians number more than 3 million, with Hindus, tribal peoples and others accounting for the rest of the population.
“The government is duty-bound to take measures [to uphold these] constitutional guarantees,” reminded the Catholic Commission, urging the government to effectively ban provocation against non-Muslims through loudspeakers, hate literature and media as happened in the North-West Frontier Province, and to take measures to promote interfaith respect.
“Nobody seems to be taking serious steps against those threatening the Christians,” Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission said from his office in Lahore.
“Christians feel that they are an easy target for any militant group,” Aftab Mughal, editor of an email newsletter, Minorities Concern of Pakistan, said. “To attack the Christian churches, religious ceremonies and their localities is not a new experience, but to send threatening letters is a very new phenomenon.”
Anto Akkara writes from