Last week Chris Knowles of the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA) attended a conference at the House of Lords on the treatment of minorities in Pakistan. Below is his report, which was originally published at the ICLA website.
ICLA Attends Pakistan Minorities Rights Organisation UK Conference In House Of Lords
Chris Knowles of the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA) Outside Parliament After House of Lords Conference Organised by the Pakistan Minorities Rights Organisation UK.
On 12 March 2013 I had the privilege of attending a conference in the House of Lords on behalf of the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA). The conference, organised by the Pakistan Minorities Rights Organisation (PMRO) UK, was hosted by Baroness Berridge who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Religious Freedom. I am not sure that this committee will have the willingness to properly address the problems raised by the people at the conference. It would mean that certain taboos held dear by the British establishment might need to be brought into question if what some of the speakers said is true. Based on my own reading in history, politics and religion I for one do not doubt the sincerity of those who spoke or the veracity of what was said. However, I have never been on the ground in Pakistan and from what I heard, as a non-Muslim, I would not want to be.
There were a number of distinguished speakers including a Bishop from Faisalabad, a professor who had to flee to Australia, and an ex-member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly. There were also contributions from other speakers as well as by guests who were not on the official speakers’ list. On the whole the picture that was painted was grim. There is no other way to describe the upsetting catalogue of religious persecution and abuse that appears to take place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The restrictions that are already placed on free speech in the United Kingdom make it very difficult for me to adequately explain what these eye-witnesses to persecution revealed. The atmosphere in Britain with regard to any discussions relating to Islam is oppressive. Just like in Pakistan, if you say the wrong thing about Islam then you can find yourself in very serious trouble. A situation has been created in which any discussion of Islam that points out potential problems is seen as negative and therefore racist and subject to exemplary punishment. This is perhaps also the cause of much suffering endured by Pakistani Christians who fail in their attempts to gain asylum in the United Kingdom. Their eye-witness stories from Pakistan might be regarded by our political elite as a threat to ‘community cohesion’?
What follows is an impression of what was discussed at the conference. It is not an attack on Muslims or Islam and it is based on the experiences of a small number of people with regard to one country — Pakistan. The situations in other Muslim countries might be different; the situation in Pakistan might not be as grim as the picture that is painted. However, if some of the abuses can be recognised and dealt with in a calm and considered manner, then we are already on the road to dealing with the problem of lack of meaningful religious freedom in Pakistan.
I will start by referring to the experiences outlined by a couple of the speakers. I will then provide some context by referring to the legacy of British India. I do this because the historic association with Britain was seen by some at the conference as holding the seeds of a potential solution to the persecution of minorities in Pakistan. I will then give an outline of the general areas which people at the conference identified as sources of persecution for minorities in Pakistan. This will be followed by some conclusions and some suggestions for the way forward.
Conference Speakers Who Have Been Persecuted — Two Examples
Bishop John Samuel of Faisalabad
One of the most inspiring and moving speeches was delivered by Bishop John Samuel of Faisalabad who had himself been on the receiving end of religious persecution in Pakistan. In 2009, following attacks on the Christian community, he and other Christians rather than those responsible for the attacks were arrested .
He spoke about his own experiences and the on-going persecution of Christians in Pakistan. Forced conversions, forced marriage and kidnapping of Christians is widespread and it is not easy to practice the Christian faith openly.
He recalled heart-breaking stories of human tragedy caused by Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law. Under that law, a mere allegation is enough to put a person’s life in danger. Even if action is not taken by the state, the prospect of mob violence means that Christians experience constant insecurity. ICLA believes that the Government of Pakistan deliberately tolerates such lawlessness as a means of marginalising the Christian minority.
Mr Scott — Professor in Pakistan
Mr Scott, who was one of the first victims of the Pakistani Blasphemy Law, told his story. He explained how, as a professor at a university, he was questioned on religious issues by colleagues who wanted to convert him to Islam. They asked him questions that were designed to get him to renounce his Christianity or face blasphemy allegations. In the end, he faced blasphemy allegations and had to flee to Australia.
He explained that those who were responsible for the hatred levelled against him were not misinformed Muslims who do not understand their own religion, but well educated university professors.
What came across to me from what he was saying was that he felt that Islamic teaching was the source of much of the persecution that was levelled against him. I would think it very unlikely that politicians in a country like Britain would want to believe him or even perhaps, would be afraid to believe him! After all anyone who dares to question sharia is demonised and persecuted even in the United Kingdom.
The Legacy of British India
At the conference, it was noted that Christians were not considered in 1947 when the British partitioned India and created the new states of India, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (Pakistan). A Christian homeland was not considered as part of the plans.
There seemed to be a general feeling at the conference that the Christian minority community in Pakistan is the only community that has nowhere to escape to. Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs can flee to India and be greeted by organisations and communities that support them and help them to re-establish their lives. It was suggested that among Pakistan’s minorities, it was only the Christians who did not have a country that would accept them. There seemed to be a feeling that they are the forgotten and abandoned minority of Pakistan.
Furthermore, it was pointed out that the blasphemy laws that create so much suffering for minorities in Pakistan, had their origins in British India which responded to complaints from the Islamic community about hurt feelings, etc. Then like now, hurt feelings seem to have been regarded as more important than real physical suffering and abuse. According to the website Alaiwah!  the British introduced 4 blasphemy laws to the Raj. Remarkably some of these laws whose legacy has caused so much suffering in Pakistan bear great similarity to laws proposed for Western countries in our own age (Quoted from (1) above):
“298: Uttering words, etc. with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings. Whoever, with any deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.” [Indian Penal Code (IPC) 298]
The other laws IPC295, IPC296 and IPC295A, can be found in the article on the Alaiwah! website.
There was a general feeling at the conference that the United Kingdom, as the former imperial power, had a moral obligation to help solve the problems that have been caused for the Christian minority of Pakistan. The suggestions directed toward the UK government for a resolution to the problems faced by Christians in Pakistan were simple and reasonable:
(1) That the UK government makes aid to Pakistan conditional upon that country revoking the Blasphemy Law that causes so much misery to non-Muslims in that country.
(2) It should make it easier for persecuted Pakistani Christians to gain asylum in the UK.
It was pointed out that there seems to be a policy of treating Pakistani Christian applications for asylum with great suspicion. This has resulted in many applicants being denied asylum and retuned to Pakistan. It was pointed out that the Ahmadiyya, who are also persecuted by the regime in Pakistan, seemed to be treated more favourably by the UK Border Agency than Christians, even though they were fleeing the same country.
From my own perspective as a British Citizen resident in the United Kingdom, such apparent discrimination comes as no surprise. In my country, you get an impression that UK Christians are themselves discriminated against in their own country. I would guess that stories of persecution from Pakistani Christians would be something that the British Government would prefer to avoid lest it upset the delicate balance of ‘Community Cohesion.’ It seems to me that the British government is too enthralled by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the large amount of potential oil money investment that is up for grabs from many OIC member states.
Pakistani Christians are desperate for the UK to solve their problems. However, if I understand the British government correctly, they will unfortunately and tragically, have a very long wait! The legacy of imperial responsibilities will be of no consequence to the contemporary British government. After all, it could be argued that they are now doing to British Christians what they previously did to Christians who ended up in Pakistan. Imperial policy is now directed against the British people themselves.
The Suffering of Christians in Pakistan
Quite simply, the enduring message from most of those who spoke at the conference was that Christians are persecuted because they are Christian. Their religious beliefs are at the source of their oppression and if they converted to Islam, then the oppression would undoubtedly disappear. From my point of view, to be in the same room as people who are willing to suffer rather than abandon their faith was truly humbling.
The recent events in Joseph Colony near Lahore, where an anti-Christian pogrom effectively took place, were uppermost in the minds of people at the conference. These events are an example of anti-Christian prejudice in Pakistan. Sadly such events are not uncommon in Pakistan and religious persecution seems to be a common occurrence.
The following account relates to the notes I made from speakers at the conference. I have tried to categorise the issues to make the issues easier to absorb. This section highlights the way organised religious intolerance is used in Pakistan to marginalise and demonise religious minorities.
I start by referring to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The reader is reminded that these are the sort of laws that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) wants to impose on the Western world via the United Nations. These are the laws that Western governments seem prepared to inflict on their populations at the behest of the OIC! As I mentioned in the previous section, the blasphemy laws were in fact the legacy of the British Raj itself.
I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of people at the conference felt that blasphemy laws were the main cause of Christian suffering in Pakistan. Such laws were seen as a tool used by the state to ingrain prejudice against non-Muslims. Indeed, it was noted that only a Muslim judge can rule on blasphemy cases; this in itself is an example of religious discrimination. In addition to the most basic problem of putting the human soul into a spiritual straight jacket, the problems do not end there. Such laws are often used to settle scores on issues not even related to religion and to bully and cajole non-Muslims into accepting a second class status in society.
Blasphemy laws were seen as something that is used disproportionately against religious minorities. The fact that those accused could end up on Pakistan’s Death Row is enough to terrorise most people. Indeed blasphemy laws, by their very definition, are the tools of tyrants.
In Pakistan, the blasphemy laws do not just affect the alleged blasphemer. Often whole families or entire communities have to flee when one of their number is accused. It was pointed out at the conference that all minorities are under constant threat due to the blasphemy laws and that they have resulted in the loss of countless lives.
It is not just the blasphemy laws themselves that are a problem, but also the mob mentality and perceived justification for violence that they seem to encourage. Even when people are found innocent, the mob continues to do the job of oppression leaving the state aloof with plausible deniability. Rarely are the culprits who instigate mob violence brought to justice, which to most reasonable people would imply state complicity. Apparently all that is needed for a mob of thousands to assemble is a simple announcement from the local mosque. One speaker made the point that in Pakistan even speaking against the Blasphemy Law itself can get you assassinated due to the mechanism of mob rule.
The government of Pakistan sometimes provides victims of mob violence with financial compensation. However, this does not cure people of their sense of terror or the mental stress that goes with living in constant fear. Indeed, the feeling of the conference was that the government should perform its most basic duty to protect them in the first place. Real protection and guaranteed equality would be far more useful to Pakistan’s minorities than crocodile tears shed after the damage has been done and the terror inflicted.
It was pointed out that since the government often manages to have time to warn communities that a mob is assembling and heading their way and that they should flee, it could just as easily organise proper protection. Indeed, the lack of willingness to do this demonstrates a total lack of willingness to address actual problem at all. What sort of incompetent government advises its citizens to run for their lives? Perhaps the Pakistani government wants minorities to live in constant fear so that they remain disadvantaged second class citizens? Indeed, some of those present at the conference regarded the Blasphemy Law itself as a tool of state sponsored criminality.
Non-Muslims Ineligible to be President or Prime Minister
One speaker explained that as a Christian he is discriminated against in the political system itself. In an article published by ChristianNewsToday.com, on the subject of the 18th Amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution,  it is stated that non-Muslims are ineligible for the post of either President or Prime Minister. This is clear and open religious discrimination at the highest levels of the Pakistani State.
One eyewitness speaker said that in Pakistan’s education system much emphasis is placed on the superiority of Islam. Christians are forced to study Islam and Arabic rather than the Bible. Text books have a strong Islamic emphasis and the description of Christians is sometimes offensive. The education system is used as a tool of propaganda against Christians and other minorities. Parents discourage their children from publically discussing their faith because the Blasphemy Law could easily be used against them. The Christian religion reportedly is openly mocked in the playground and via the loudspeakers of mosques. Not surprisingly, high levels of illiteracy are common amongst the Christian population due to the constant mockery of their faith and the associated intimidation by both fellow students and teachers.
Basic Religious Freedom — The Singing of Hymns
The OIC complains about religious discrimination in Western countries, yet in Pakistan Christians even fear to sing hymns lest they sing too loudly and annoy their Muslim neighbours. One speaker made the point that if Christians sing hymns in Pakistan, they have to be careful not to sing too loud so as to avoid unpleasant attentions. How dare the OIC lecture the West when its member states cannot even guarantee such a basic religious freedom?
Naming Your Child
A Christian name in Pakistan can get you singled out for unfriendly attention. After all it is a screaming siren that indicates you are not a follower of Islam. Consequently, it was mentioned, that naming conventions are changing in Pakistan. Parents are opting for common Pakistani names rather than Christian names in order to protect their children from persecution. Feeling compelled not to have a Christian name is a clear signal that religious persecution in Pakistan is endemic.
Religious Affiliation on Passports
Perhaps one of the most blatant acts by the Pakistani State to encourage religious discrimination is its requirement that people have their religion on their passports. Such a requirement is a potential invitation to bigots to treat people differently just because of their religious affiliation. It is just another way to marginalise minorities and deliberately leave them open to discrimination and outright persecution. It is akin to Jews in Nazi Germany being forced to wear the yellow star. What possible justification does the Pakistani State have for such discrimination?
‘Western Agents’ Rather Than Citizens
In the spirit of the conspiracy theories that seem to be common in the Middle East, one contributor mentioned that in Pakistan, Christians are often seen as ‘Western Agents’ rather than citizens. For some this perception is an excuse to deny Christians their rights and to treat them as outsiders. Basic citizenship is thus often denied in practice. It is the equivalent of labelling all Muslims as members of the Taliban — clearly preposterous. Does the government of Pakistan do anything to educate the majority community that this is wrong?
Food and Drink
A most basic function of life that usually brings people together — sharing a meal, encounters problems in Pakistan. One speaker talked about how some Muslims in Pakistan will not eat food that has been touched by ‘the impure hands Christians.’ They said that as a Christian, if you were thirsty on your way home you might come across a shop selling drinks with a sign saying: “Non-Muslims Not Served Here!” Woe betide you if you dared to get a drink there and they discovered that you were Christian! If some sections of society are regarded as impure and excluded in this way, what hope is there for social harmony and community cohesion?
Problems Faced By Persecuted Pakistani Christians Who Seek Asylum in the United Kingdom
I will conclude this section by referring to a problem that Pakistani Christians say that they experience when they are safely out of Pakistan and are on the ground in the United Kingdom seeking asylum. At the conference, I heard complaints that Pakistani Christians seem to be discriminated against and have less chance of asylum been granted. One of the complaints was that when they identify themselves as Urdu speakers from Pakistan, certain assumptions are made and their cultural needs are not suitably met. For instance sometimes it is assumed that they are Muslims and consideration is not given to their bad experiences at the hands of some Muslims in Pakistan. When they are provided with Muslim lawyers and translators, they naturally may feel uncomfortable. Of course, I would assume that this would not be a real problem due to the integrity and professionalism of those involved. However, if people feel that they cannot express themselves comfortably then they may be put at disadvantage in the asylum system.
The impression from what was said at the conference was that the discrimination that takes place in Pakistan is not due to a minority of extremists; rather it is an ingrained part of Pakistani society. I would like to stress for the sake of the British censors that this was just the opinion of a contributor to the conference and should not be used to imply a general point about Islam or Muslims. Furthermore, other statements were made that would be regarded as heresy by the chattering classes. But who is one expected to believe in such situations — those who want to restrict free speech in Britain or a victim of oppression in Pakistan? Perhaps members of the British elite need to look victims of Islamic persecution in the eye before they mount their own witch hunts against those who oppose Sharia.
As I mentioned earlier, great faith was placed by those attending the conference in the ability of the British Government to rush to the rescue of Christians in Pakistan. Perhaps they mistake modern Britain for the honourable and moral country that it used to be?
In my opinion, it is unlikely that the British Government and British Based NGOs will treat the plight of Pakistan’s Christians with much meaningful sympathy. By meaningful I mean that they will influence events sufficiently to bring the suffering to a permanent end. It is not necessarily their fault. They are not allowed speak the words that would describe what is going on in Pakistan. The taboos of the British Establishment would need to be completely overturned and laws would need to be changed. Equally, courageous people would have to start emerging and they are a very rare breed when it comes to the British Establishment!
The Establishment is not interested in hearing about what people have seen with their own eyes, but instead seem to be peddlers of fantasy and wishful thinking. Anyone who questions their orthodoxy is denounced as a heretic. Problems are hidden just because they conflict with policy. It is as if they want the world to conform to policy and not the other way around. How can real problems be solved in such an environment?
ICLA is keen to work with all religious groups who are willing to commit themselves to true religious freedom locally, nationally and internationally. That includes Islamic groups who are committed to religious freedom for all religions and none. It must be remembered that the one thing that is the best guarantee for freedom of religion is freedom of expression. With regard to the plight of Christians in Pakistan I make the following recommendations on behalf of the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA):
|1.||ICLA believes that the United Kingdom has a historical responsibility for the Christians of Pakistan. It regards the 2 alternative courses of action mentioned in the early part of this account as reasonable. That the United Kingdom should adopt a strategy of linkage that means that aid to Pakistan is only provided when the Blasphemy Law is repealed. Failing a willingness to do that, the British Government should be more understanding when it comes to the specific cases of persecuted Pakistani Christians who seek asylum. However, our preference is clearly for the persecution that takes place in Pakistan to come to a permanent end rather than being swept under the carpet.|
|2.||ICLA is concerned that the United Kingdom’s continuing collaboration with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) exacerbates the suffering of religious minorities in Pakistan. The OIC, of which Pakistan is a member, was instrumental in creating UNHRC resolution 16/18 which purports to be a resolution for religious freedom. A lack of sincerity on the part of the OIC with regard to UNHRC 16/18 is suggested by the continuing religious persecution that goes on within many OIC member states. We have seen examples of what is reported to go on in Pakistan from the account above. The lack of real and lasting action against religious persecution by the OIC should be cause for alarm for the British Government. The British Government should show better due diligence with regard to the assessment of the OIC, its aims and values. Otherwise it could end up bringing the entire concept of religious freedom into disrepute.|
|3.||The section above entitled “The Suffering of Christians in Pakistan” shows some of the ways religious discrimination takes place in Pakistan. ICLA believes that an Observatory on Religious Discrimination in Pakistan needs to be created. The OIC has created its Islamophobia Observatory and it would be very useful to see an Observatory established by the international community that looked at religious discrimination in Pakistan. It would be interesting to see how the problems outlined by each Observatory compared with each other. This might be a useful way of drawing up the most urgent priorities on the part of the international community. At the moment priorities seem to be drawn up based on the flow of oil revenue.|
As a final note for this account, I would like to draw attention to an important initiative of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Religious Freedom that was raised towards the end of the conference. This initiative is entitled Article 18: An Orphaned Right and refers to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which relates to religious freedom. Of course, the rival 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam perhaps has a share of blame for undermining Article 18 — it does after all make all human rights subject to the Islamic Sharia. In any case the APPG is asking for submissions on its website which can be found at http://anorphanedright.net/
— Chris Knowles (International Civil Liberties Alliance)
|1.||Pakistan: Police issue warrant for Bishop of Faisalabad and 128 other Christians of Gojra (Pakistan Christian Post)|
|2.||Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan A Historical Overview (Alaiwah!)|
|3.||No Non-Muslim Can Becomes Prime Minster Of Pakistan Under the New Constitutional Amendment (ChristianNewsToday.com)|