ROME — The appalling reality of religious persecution in Pakistan was brought to the attention of the world through the story of Asia Bibi, a Christian farmworker sentenced to death in 2010. Bibi was finally acquitted on Oct. 31, 2018, and she left Pakistan for Canada with her family in May.

On June 26, an international conference held at the Chamber of Deputies of Rome brought a laser-like focus to this continued persecution of Pakistani Christians, who represent 2.5% of the Pakistani population, according to CIA World Factbook. The conference was sponsored by an Italian interparliamentary group dedicated to defending religious freedom for Christians around the world.

As conference speakers noted, despite Bibi’s release, anti-blasphemy laws remain a thorny issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can lead to death sentences, murders and lynchings. Moreover, these laws are often manipulated to solve personal quarrels or to persecute religious minorities, especially Christians.

Today, 40 Christians are reportedly serving life sentences or facing execution for blasphemy in the country.

Conference speakers called for Pakistan’s government to repeal its blasphemy laws, and many pointed to the Bibi case as a stark example of the injustice and abuse inherent in these laws.

Bibi was accused of insulting Muhammad by Muslim villagers after she quarreled with fellow workers in a berry field for drinking water from a cup reserved for Muslim use. She denied the charge throughout her nine-year high-profile trial — a trial accompanied by extreme social tensions and violent public demonstrations calling for her death.

Conference speakers also offered a series of more general proposals in favor of religious minorities in the Middle East, such as the creation of an ad hoc watchdog body at the European Parliament.


Europe’s Responsibility

Current European Union policies toward Pakistan were directly questioned by speakers at the conference, especially by French businessman Henri Malosse, former president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). As a way to address Pakistan’s human-rights abuses, Malosse urged the EU to leverage the trading benefits it grants to Pakistan — it exports more than 7 billion items to the European market without paying custom duties.

“Given the vital importance of such agreement for Pakistan, which represents around 40% of all of its exports, the EU has an instrument at its disposal that would be very likely to convince Pakistani authorities to abolish this law, or at least to relax it,” Malosse told the Register, adding that the EU grants such commercial preferences only if a country complied with 27 international conventions on political and religious human rights. He noted that Pakistan’s government in Islamabad has yet to respect these conventions.

According to Malosse, in the past few years, several countries sought action from the EU on this matter, asking in vain for the suspension of Pakistan’s trade advantages as long as the blasphemy laws are still in force.

“There are political and economic interests at stake, as Pakistan is actually blackmailing the European powers,” he said, explaining that if European countries moved to restrict imports, Pakistani authorities threatened to influence the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to provoke attacks against the European forces there and to draw themselves closer to China, Europe’s main trade competitor. “Europe concedes to threats, and, in the meantime, dozens of thousands of Christians and other minorities are suffering in Pakistan.”

Malosse also told the Register that the EU could take a few lessons from the U.S. in its policies regarding countries with poor human-rights records.

“I think that the EU should stick to its values more,” he said. “Whether we like President Trump or not, we must acknowledge the fact that he is making things change in the United States. He is being firm towards the countries that violate the religious minorities’ rights and has classified Pakistan among the states that support terrorism.”

On June 21, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Pakistan to do more on religious freedom and to stop the abuse occurring under cover of its blasphemy laws. He also encouraged the Pakistani government to appoint an envoy to address religious-freedom concerns.


Where Are the Witnesses?

Among Europe’s other failures to address human-right issues in Pakistan mentioned during the conference, speakers also pointed to the lack of media coverage on the situation of Christians in the country.

According to Arthur Lanternier, who is responsible for the cooperation and development of the French humanitarian association SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (SOS), which offers French humanitarian aid to Christians in the Middle East, the media may not be focused on human-rights abuses in Pakistan because it enjoys relative peace, at least compared to other Middle Eastern countries.

“The Eastern Christians received media attention only in Syria, because of the war,” he told the Register. “But in Pakistan, their suffering is not caused by war, but by discriminatory policies coming from the government in power.”

“We see that we are raising awareness, but Europe could do so much more” in the Middle East, Lanternier added.

“We must insist,” he said, that the Pakistan government be held accountable for its record of abuses.

SOS was founded in part to help inform young European Christians about the tragedy of their brothers and sisters in the Middle East — the birthplace of Christianity. The association, which is rooted in France and Italy, sends hundreds of young volunteers each year into countries where Christians are persecuted so that, after witnessing to the concrete situation on the ground, they can provide testimony back in Europe.

Together with the Catholic organization Aid to the Church in Need, SOS provided support to Asia Bibi. They also helped her lawyer, Saiful Malook, to safely leave the courthouse on the day of Bibi’s acquittal, as radical Muslims were waiting outside to lynch him. Through SOS’ efforts, Malook found refuge in Europe.


Virtual Slavery

But Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are not the only legally sanctioned means of oppressing Christians in this Asian country. Besides violence and systematic discriminations, to which the police and courts often turn a blind eye, many Pakistani Christians live in slavery-like conditions. According to Benjamin Blanchard, co-founder and executive director of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, the poorest are often forced to work for their board and lodging on property owned by Muslims. However, when these Christian workers are unable to work because of health issues or simply because of bad weather, they are obliged to repay their employers for each non-working day.

“As a result, the Christians are indebted for several generations, and some of them even inherit their grandparents’ debts and transmit them to their children — it is intractable!” Blanchard told the Register.

SOS first came to Pakistan in 2017 to help Pakistani Christians replant their roots on the lands they previously owned in the country, an effort they hope to accomplish through economic development and sound relationships between Pakistani and Western Christians. According to Blanchard, they have also enlisted the help of a local priest in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province.

“Together with Father Emmanuel Parvez from the parish of Pansara, in the district of Faisalabad, we have decided to end this vicious circle by creating autonomous Christian villages, in order to allow the inhabitants to start their own business and possibly pay off their debts,” Blanchard said. “The objective is to allow, over one or two generations, all the [Pakistani] Christians to live as free men.”  


The Church in Pakistan

Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s former federal minister for minorities affairs, a Catholic who took part in the conference, insisted that without high-quality education for children in Pakistan, a change in the law would have no positive impact.

Bhatti is the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, also a former minister for minorities affairs, who was murdered by gunmen in 2011 for encouraging reform in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“We must intervene in the schools and in the mosques that instill hatred against the Christians and that try to radicalize the youngest generations,” Paul Bhatti told the Register. Many groups in Pakistan are promoting interreligious dialogue, Bhatti said, but they struggle to agree on a proper agenda.

“If we gather important groups in the EU and from other countries like Turkey and Pakistan, we could really make things change,” he said. “We must focus on a dialogue with people that are able to have a religious influence over society, over citizens.”

The Church could also play an important role in such a process, according to Bhatti, who met Pope Francis several times in the past few years.

Local Catholic churches in Pakistan are striving to support and protect the faithful, but the situation is fragile. Indeed, the relationships between the Holy See and Pakistan worsened in 2011, when WikiLeaks revealed that the Vatican judged Islamabad “an unreliable partner” in anti-terrorist efforts. That same year, Pope Benedict attracted the wrath of various religious parties in Pakistan after he called for the scrapping of the blasphemy laws.

After those incidents, the Vatican has adopted a far more finely shaded attitude, especially under Francis’ pontificate. For instance, Blanchard noted, the Vatican has taken a hands-off approach in addressing the blasphemy laws, and specifically the Bibi case, although he also noted that this new policy hasn’t discouraged local Christians.

“During Asia Bibi’s case, the Vatican — through its secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin — found that this case was internal to Pakistan,” Blanchard said. “On this specific matter, it is a good thing that some faithful have decided to take action on the basis of the issue, without waiting for any far-reaching political action.”

Such a view is shared by Henri Malosse, who said the Vatican, which could do more for persecuted Christians in Pakistan, should pressure the EU authorities to take firm measures. “There is the belief that economic growth and free trade will help Pakistan evolve towards more democracy and respect for minorities,” Malosse said, “but, unfortunately, it doesn’t work in these cases. Only an uncompromising language will work.”

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.