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Religion

A dark Christmas for Pakistani Christians

Christians celebrate Christmas amid growing fear of persecution and rampant economic and social discrimination in Muslim-majority Pakistan. The year 2012 was one of the worst years for them in the country.

In many parts of the world, Christmas means a time of celebration. But for Christians in Pakistan, who live under constant fear of persecution by the state and majority Sunni Muslims, there is not much to celebrate.

Christians make up about two percent of the 180 million people living in Pakistan. Rights organizations say that like any other religious minority, they face legal and cultural discrimination in the Islamic Republic.

Pakistani Christians carry crosses during a protest against an Islamic cleric who had accused a Christian girl Rimsha of blasphmy, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 2 September 2012
(Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER)

Pakistanis protested the arrest of Masih, who they believe was innocent

Pakistan's non-government human rights commission, HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), reported that the year 2012 was one of the worst years for Pakistani Christians; a number of them were charged with blasphemy, their churches were burnt and houses looted in many parts of the country.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Controversial blasphemy laws introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s make life for Christians more difficult. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas; they say the Christians are thereby often victimized.

Living under blasphemy laws

On August 16, Rimsha Masih - a Christian girl aged between 10 and 14 - was accused of committing a blasphemous act by a religious cleric in her town. The cleric said she had burnt pages upon which were inscribed verses from the Koran. Masih was promptly taken into police custody.

Pakistani officials claimed the girl suffered from Down's Syndrome, a genetic disorder causing major learning disabilities. Western governments expressed serious concern over her arrest. After numerous protests by rights organizations and Western governments, a Pakistani court ordered her release from custody.

But Asia Bibi has not had such luck. In 2010, Bibi, an impoverished farmer, was sentenced to death after her neighbors accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She is still languishing in prison. The liberal Pakistanis who chose to support Bibi were also not spared by Islamists.

A few months after Bibi's conviction, former governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri said he killed Taseer for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and in support of Bibi. In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's former minister for minority affairs, was assassinated by a religious fanatic for the same reason.

Family members of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian minority women, who was sentenced to death by a local court for blasphemy on 8 November
(Photo: EPA/T. MUGHAL)

Bibi and her family await justice

Farzana Bari, director of Center for Women's Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, believes discrimination will persist until the government reforms its legislation.

"It is high time that Pakistani government reform these anti-blasphemy laws. These laws are even against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for the country," she told DW.

The government of President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was heavily criticized by domestic and international rights organizations for failing to reform the laws after the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti.

But Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed does not only blame the government. He told DW in an interview that what used to be a small section of society had now become mainstream.

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hatemongers and bigots who commit such crimes. Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," he said, adding that those who condemned such "barbaric crimes" were now a minority in Pakistan.

He also criticized the Pakistani judiciary for its alleged sympathetic behavior toward the right-wing. "Asia Bibi is still in jail, while Qadri (Taseer's assassin), is still alive," he said.

Living in fear

Before the rise of Islamic extremism and religious intolerance in Pakistan, Christians celebrated Christmas with much enthusiasm. They would put stars on their houses and decorate their towns with lights and flags. But many now worry about the risk of being conspicuous.

"We are scared. We are frightened. We cannot sit together, we cannot speak loudly, we cannot celebrate openly. We receive threats," Ashraf Masih, a street sweeper, told AFP. "If we sit together and talk, all of a sudden the Muslim owner of the house will come and ask 'Why are you here, what are you talking about?'"

Islamic parties' demonstration in support of Mumtaz Qadri

Qadri was celebrated by extremists for the murder of a governor critical of blasphemy laws

Aslam Masih, a 37-year-old gardener, told AFP in an interview that previously they used to celebrate Christmas in the town church but now it it had been closed.

Attacks on churches

Experts say that the worshipping places of Pakistani minorities are also being increasingly targeted - not only by Islamic extremists, but also by common Pakistanis.

Abdul Hai, a senior official of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Karachi, told DW that while there were also commercial reasons behind the attacks on the minorities' places of worship, most of the time, the temples and churches were attacked for religious reasons. "Religious fanaticism is growing in Pakistan and religious extremist groups are getting stronger by the day. Unfortunately, the government is not doing anything to protect minorities and their places of worship," Hai said.

One of the most violent attacks on Christians and their places of worship in Pakistan was carried out in 2009 in the central Gojra town of the Punjab when Muslims burnt more than 70 Christian houses and many churches, killing seven people, after a rumor that the Koran had been desecrated.

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