New Report Publicizes Plight of Christians in Pakistan

‘They don’t have any hope’: Catholics in the country face intense persecution and systemic discrimination.

Children in Lahore, Pakistan pray together.
Children in Lahore, Pakistan pray together. (photo: Gary Yim / Shutterstock)

The small Catholic minority in Pakistan is facing violent persecution and systemic discrimination, which has intensified in recent decades.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) annual 2023 report on Pakistani religious freedom was released earlier this month and highlighted the ongoing persecution of Christians. The report, titled “A Culture of Hate Mongering: Freedom of Religion or Belief in 2022/23” and authored by Pakistani journalist Rabia Mehmood, documented the violent repercussions of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, including mob lootings, burnings and bombings, and targeted killings. It stated, “Violence in the name of religion has increasingly become the status quo in Pakistan.”

Christian public figures are uncommon and face the threat of assassination. Peter Bhatti, founder and chairman of International Christian Voice, a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to advocating for Pakistani religious minorities, spoke with the Register about the persecution of Catholics. 

Bhatti told the Register that, in Pakistan, “there is no law and order … extremism is growing.” He referenced the widespread attacks on Christians in August 2023, in which “they burned to ashes 25 churches, and thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.” 

He added of the perpetrators: “Unfortunately, with the passage of time, they all got released.”

Bhatti is the older brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the first and only Christian Pakistani federal minister, who was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; he is recognized as a martyr, bearing the title “Servant of God” in the Catholic Church.

Another martyr and Servant of God from Pakistan, Akash Bashir has recently joined Shahbaz Bhatti as the first Pakistani candidates for canonization. Bashir was killed at the age of 20 while working as a volunteer security guard for his parish in the Diocese of Lahore. He was the victim of a suicide bombing by the Islamic extremist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA). His sacrifice prevented the bomber from gaining entry to the church and harming the more than 1,000 Catholics attending Mass inside.

In addition to his brother’s assassination, Bhatti spoke of the 2011 assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Kahn, who supported Asia Bibi, a Christian mother falsely accused of blasphemy and imprisoned for 10 years before her acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court. He explained, “There are very limited voices left in Pakistan who are raising these issues. The voices become silent because of the life-threatening danger of raising these issues.”


False Accusations and Systemic Discrimination

False accusations of blasphemy are at the heart of much of the violence highlighted by the new human rights commission report. Casey Chalk, author of the book The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands, told the Register, “The blasphemy laws allow formal prosecution of anyone accused of blasphemy against Allah or the Quran and are used as a weapon against Christians. The laws have allowed jihadists to target the Christian population.”

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told the Register that Pakistan “is the worst place in the world for blasphemy prosecutions.” Blasphemy allegations can be entirely unfounded and are utilized “to resolve grudges and grievances.”

After an accusation is made, Shea explained, “The wheels of justice move very slowly in Pakistan, and you could be locked up for 10 years. The fanatics get angry with that, too. … That’s why you see a couple being thrown into a furnace, a brick kiln, and burned to death. Others are just slaughtered. Entire neighborhoods are destroyed and set afire — Christian neighborhoods, disproportionately targeting the minorities.”

In addition to the explicit threat of violence, according to Shea, “Christians are kept very poor because there is an enormous amount of discrimination. And so they’re kept impoverished and without education. Many of them are illiterate, and they take jobs as janitors frequently.”

In early 2022, the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ) in Pakistan released a document comprised of about 300 advertisements from both government and public sector jobs, which state that “only non-Muslim candidates can apply for the post of sweeper/sanitary worker.” Al-Jazeera reported that the CLJ submitted these advertisements in the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2021, in hopes of them eventually hearing a case on religious discrimination.


Forced Conversions

Along with systemic discrimination and violence, the HRCP report highlighted the widespread prevalence of forced conversion to Islam, particularly among women and girls, and especially “in the absence of national legislation against this heinous practice and effective enforcement of child marriage laws.” Chalk emphasized: “This is a decades-long trend, with hundreds, if not thousands, of other stories, a lot of which fly under the radar. For example, more than a thousand Christian women have been abducted by Muslim men and forcibly remarried; these women have no recourse in Pakistani law.” 

Thus, faced with such difficult circumstances, many Pakistani Christians are fleeing their nation. Peter Bhatti’s organization seeks to assist refugees and relocate them in Canada, having already settled more than 200 individuals. 

Bhatti requested prayers for courage and protection for Pakistani Christians and their advocates. He said that as Catholic Pakistanis are living under the pressing threat of violence, “They don’t have any hope.”

Catholics attend Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Lahore, on Aug. 20, 2023, four days after a mob attacked several Pakistani churches over blasphemy allegations. More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalized when hundreds rampaged through a Christian neighborhood in Jaranwala in Punjab province last Aug. 16.

Church Responds to Mob Attack on Christians in Pakistan

The mob destroyed electric meters and outdoor air conditioning units, and set the Christians' homes and shop ablaze. Eventually, they brought them out, hurled stones at them, and beat them with sticks. They tried to lynch Masih, who was seriously injured.