LAHORE, Pakistan | Christians in Pakistan are feeling increasingly insecure after several violent attacks by Muslim extremists in the past two months.
In one case, eight Christians were burned to death by a Muslim mob after reports that the Muslim holy book, the Koran, had been desecrated.
Growing Talibanization of the country and a blasphemy law in place for two decades make non-Muslims, especially Christians, easy targets for discrimination and attacks, Christian and human rights activists say.
“The attacks on Christians seem to be symptomatic of a well-organized campaign launched by extremist elements against the Christian community all over central Punjab since early this year,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Chairwoman Asma Jehangir said at a press conference last month.
The situation has become so serious that Pope Benedict XVI and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari discussed it during a meeting Thursday at the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, the Associated Press reported.
The Vatican said the two stressed “the need to overcome all forms of discrimination based on religious affiliation, with the aim of promoting respect for the rights of all.”
Most of the attacks on Christians’ houses and churches followed claims of desecration of the Koran. Subsequent investigations generally proved the claims to be false.
Pakistani Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, said that no Christian would even think of desecrating the Koran. Some elements wanted to create an atmosphere of disharmony, but the government would not allow anybody to play with the lives and properties of the Christians, he said.
On June 30, a mob attacked Christians’ houses in the village of Bahmani Wala in Kasur district of Punjab province, destroying more than 50 houses after looting.
On July 30, eight people were burned alive in the village of Gojra, also in Punjab, after a purported incident of desecration of the Koran in the nearby village of Korian Wala. Churches were attacked and copies of the Bible and hymn books were burned in both villages. In Korian Wala alone, more than 50 houses of Christians were ransacked.
On Sept. 11, a church in a village in Punjab’s Sialkot district was burned after claims that a 20-year-old Christian youth had desecrated the Koran. On Sept. 15, a day after his arrest, Robert Masih was found dead in his jail cell. Police reported it as a suicide, but Mr. Masih’s family claims he was killed. Joseph Francis, who runs an organization providing legal assistance to Christians, said he saw marks of torture on Mr. Masih’s body.
Christians account for about 4 percent of the 170 million population of Pakistan, which was carved out of India as a state for Muslims at the time of independence from Britain in 1947.
Since then, successive civilian and military rulers have progressively strengthened the Islamic character of the country by introducing Shariah law. A controversial blasphemy law introduced in 1986 also has widened the gap between the minority Christians and majority Muslims.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” in 2006, citing forced conversions of Christians to Islam and a rise in hate crimes against religious minorities.
All the recent attacks targeting Christians, activist groups claimed, were provoked by hate speeches made by Muslim clerics on loudspeakers from mosques.
“The rising intolerance and violence against Christians is a result of the Talibanization and promulgation of Shariah law in the country,” said Kanwal Feroze, a well-known journalist. “It is not a matter of blasphemy law, but shows a mind-set of the common man.”
When the blasphemy law was introduced during the rule of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the punishment was life imprisonment. It was changed to the death penalty by the Federal Shariah Court in 1992 when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister.
Since the inception of the blasphemy law, as many as 976 cases have been registered under it, of which 180 were against Christians. When a Christian is accused of blasphemy, he or she can be granted bail only by the top court in the province.
The step-by-step Islamization of Pakistan began in 1956, when the country’s name was changed from the Democratic Republic of Pakistan to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In 1973, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto changed the country’s constitution to declare Islam the religion of the state. Non-Muslims were barred from becoming president or the prime minister, and denied seats in the Senate.
Mr. Bhutto - father-in law of current President Asif Ali Zardari - also nationalized church-run schools and institutions. Some of them were denationalized later by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who led Pakistan from 1999 until 2008.
In 1979, Gen. Zia introduced several Islamic laws that discriminated against non-Muslims - strengthening fundamentalist organizations and sowing the early seeds for Talibanization.
Under the Evidence Act of the Islamic law, a Christian man’s witness is worth half that of a Muslim. Christian women would not be deemed as witnesses at all.
Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women but a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman. The constitutional provisions also welcome a Christian to embrace Islam, but when a Muslim converts to Christianity, the penalty is death.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has promised to review laws that could fuel hate for non-Muslim citizens after the recent attacks. A committee has been formed to look into the laws and make recommendations.
However, hard-line parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the banned militant organization Dawat-ul-Irshad already have warned of protests if the blasphemy law is rescinded. Even the mainstream Pakistan Muslim League-Q party of Mr. Musharraf has threatened to resist any change in the law.