By Aftab Alexander Mughal
(OSV News) — As 2024 begins, Christians in Pakistan are winding up a year of violence and mayhem, with the hope of a new government to bring respite to their suffering after the national elections in February.
Following one of the country’s worst outbreaks of persecution in a generation, fear and mental trauma continue among Christians in Jaranwala town, where thousands of armed Muslims set fire to at least 19 churches and looted and destroyed hundreds of Christian homes. Jaranwala is located in the Faisalabad district, about 205 miles south of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
The violence, which started last August after two Christians were accused of tearing pages of the Quran, displaced hundreds of Christians. Several have yet to rebuild their homes and come back.
“People are still fearful, and nobody knows what happens next and when will it happen again. Nothing is safe … their lives, properties and their churches,” Kiran Afzaal, a Catholic lawyer from Lahore, told UCA News.
A 24-year-old Catholic woman in Jaranwala, who did not want her name published for safety reasons, said Christians in the area are “still in shock” after the Aug. 16 incident.
The Jaranwala riot was only the latest in a long list of violent incidents targeting Christians.
They face intimidation and threat from Islamic fundamentalists and neglect and apathy from the administration, said Sarfraz Clement, a Catholic political leader from the Dioceses of Multan, Southern Punjab.
“It is visible that hostility against Christians has gone up,” he told UCA News.
Christian groups have listed some 25 major incidents, which include physical attacks on Christians and kidnapping, raping and forcibly converting Christian girls, sometimes minors, to Islam.
Church groups have identified 109 cases of forced conversion cases in the past 11 months. Figures show 25 of them were 14 years or younger, while some 60 were ages 14 to 18.
The incidents of Muslims kidnapping Hindu and Christian girls, forcing them to convert, have become common.
But the government denies such incidents and joins the Islamic fundamentalist narrative that girls are eloping with Muslim men and converting to Islam out of their free will, said Kashif Aslam, a Catholic activist in Lahore.
False blasphemy allegations and physical attacks are also common, the list shows.
Christian leaders say that in the Muslim-dominated country of 220 million people, political leaders vie with each other to placate radical groups and tend to ignore religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus, who make up less than 4% of the population.
The 2.6 million Christians, who live dispersed across the country, have never been a politically significant community, except in pockets of Punjab province, which houses 80% of Christians in the country.
The administration ignores their complaints and they live as second-class citizens, said Suneel Malik, a Catholic human rights defender from Faisalabad.
Malik shared an incident in Lahore to prove his point. A few days before Christmas, a Christian was playing a Christmas song in his car and a Muslim man rudely asked them to turn it off saying it hurt the sentiments of Muslim people.
“I cannot understand how a Christmas song can hurt the sentiments of others. However, it is the ground reality and shows that there is no freedom of speech and freedom of expression for minorities,” Malik said.
Fundamentalist groups are gaining more ground in society and in the administration, which is threatening the basic rights of minorities, Christian leaders say.
“That’s a real threat,” said Father Sarfraz Simon from the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.
The year saw the country sharpening its blasphemy laws, ignoring Christians’ pleas to repeal them, which have been misused to target them.
Early this year the parliament amended and passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, increasing punishment for insulting the Prophet’s companions, wives and family members to 10 years along with a fine of $4,424.
“The stress levels of Christian community have gone up in 2023 because their freedoms have shrunk and tools of oppression became sharper,” Naeem Yousaf Gill, director of the National Commission of Justice and Peace, a rights body of Pakistan bishops.
“Accusing some of blasphemy has become the easiest and surest method to attack a community. The Jaranwala incident was just an example of this fact,” Yousaf said.
“The Catholic Church is trying to make things better. To address our issues, we need support from the majority community, and we are working in that direction as well,” he said.
Malik said blasphemy allegations against Christians and Ahmadis — followers of a modern Islamic sect that is considered heretical by some traditional Muslim scholars — have gone up this year. “After every major incident, we hope that the government will come up with some reforms to stop that madness, but nothing happens,” Malik said.
Christian leaders agree the general election scheduled for February would be an opportunity for Christians to engage with the political parties and put forward their demands to their local candidates.
“We need to strengthen our political side from the local body system. It will not only ensure our participation in the political process but will provide political leadership as well,” Aslam said.
He wanted Christians to become “proactive rather than reactive.”
“The mainline churches should form a joint think tank to make a concrete plan for addressing the issues of Christians in Pakistan,” he added.
The Christian community should unitedly put forward a set of suggestions to the new government asking to develop a long-term plan to address minority issues.
Aslam said in 2014, the Supreme Court asked the government to take some substantive measures to ensure the safety of religious minorities, including Christians.
“Such moves should be pushed to build a better Christian community” in Pakistan, the Catholic activist said.
Aftab Alexander Mughal writes for UCA News, an independent Catholic news service covering East, South and Southeast Asia.