The Church in Pakistan: steadfast under fire
Fionn Shiner describes the plight of Christians, particularly Christian women
On 4 th January 2022, a woman from Pakistan called Saimi Bibi, got a phone call from her father-in-law asking if she knew the whereabouts of his grandchild – Saimi’s, daughter. He said the 14-year-old Christian girl, called Mahnoor, had gone round to the house of their neighbour, Muhammad Ali Khan Ghauri – but had not returned.
Saimi said: “Mahnoor often used to go to the neighbour’s house to play with their children. My husband Aslam and me both got worried and rushed to my father-in-law’s house. When we reached there, we asked the neighbour if they had seen Mahnoor, but when she said she hadn’t, [it] was shocking for us, as I know she never went alone anywhere before.” Saimi and her family were distraught and when, after three days, there was still no word of Mahnoor, she began to fear the worst.
Three days after Mahnoor went missing, Saimi’s fears were realised. She said: “Ghauri’s sister Sana handed me a few documents consisting of Mahnoor’s conversion to Islam and marriage certificate [to Ghauri].” She added: “I was feeling very helpless, I was crying and begging Sana, Ghauri’s sister, but it was all in vain. Ghauri is already married and a father of two.”
One of the biggest problems the Church in Pakistan faces is the frequent kidnapping, rape, forced conversion and forced marriage of girls like Mahnoor. In fact, according to research by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in 2014, up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors every year. Other evidence suggests the problem is even more widespread. Research by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 2019 found that in the previous year in Sindh province alone, 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls were abducted and forced to convert.
On 25 th June 2020 Christian girl Farah Shaheen was at home in Faisalabad with her grandfather, her three brothers and two sisters. There was a knock at the door and three men burst in, grabbed Farah and forced her into a van. Her family were later told that she was married to a man named Khizar Ahmad Ali (Hayat) and had converted to Islam. She was aged 12 at the time.
Farah herself, when she was eventually freed, told the BBC about her time in captivity: “I was chained most of the time…It was terrible. They put chains on my ankles and tied me with a rope. I tried to cut the rope and get the chains off, but I couldn’t manage it. I prayed every night, saying: ‘God please help me’.”
Farah’s father, Asif Masih, reported Farah’s abduction to the police but it took three months before they opened the case. Eventually, in December 2020, Farah was discovered at Mr Ahmad’s house in Hafizabad, nearly 70 miles from her home. Her ankles were wounded where she had been shackled. However, Farah’s ordeal continued. There was a lengthy court process assessing the validity of her marriage, particularly the question of whether she was underage. The Faisalabad District and Sessions’ Court ordered a medical examination of Farah’s teeth, bones, and genitalia and found her to be 16 or 17. Her father dismissed this as “an outright lie”.
Finally, on 16 th February 2021 the court ruled the marriage unlawful on account of it having been registered incorrectly. Farah said she originally told the court she agreed to the marriage because Mr Ahmad told her if she said she’d been coerced “he’d first kill me, then murder… my whole family”. An investigation into Mr Ahmad and three other men was dropped in January 2021, much to the dismay of Farah’s family.
And then there’s the case of Maira Shahbaz. A Catholic altar server, she was 14 when she was bundled into a car by three men at gunpoint in April 2020 during the first lockdown in Madina Town, Faisalabad. Her mother reported the case to the police and, as with Farah, a complicated court process began. In August 2020, after being forced by the courts to return to her abductor, Maira escaped his house. She renounced her forced conversion and marriage – and her abductor, Mr Mohamad Nakash, accused her of apostasy, a capital offence in religious law.
Following reports that armed men were going door-to-door looking for her, Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) called on the UK government to grant Maira asylum. ACN organised an open letter to 10 Downing Street signed by more than 30 bishops, parliamentarians and CEOs of charities supporting persecuted Christians. Alongside this letter, ACN presented a petition of more than 12,000 signatures to the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce. Mrs Bruce said she would bring it to the “urgent consideration” of Home Secretary Priti Patel. A meeting between Fiona Bruce, Sir Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, and John Pontifex, head of Press and Information at ACN (UK), was held to discuss next steps.
Speaking to Crux magazine about forced conversions, Cardinal Joseph Coutts, former Archbishop of Karachi, and Pakistan’s highest-ranking cleric, said: “Now where the matter has come to a head is that in court, even some lawyers have said in Islamic law, there is no minimum age for marriage or conversion. In Islamic law, there is nothing about minimum age as long as the child is of the age of reason and is able to say yes or no.”
Arzoo Raja, 13, also Catholic, was taken on 13 th October 2020 and had her marriage annulled on 11 th November 2020. She is now with her parents, but her conversion to Islam still stands. There is also Huma Younus who was 14 when she was taken in October 2019 and was reportedly pregnant with her alleged abductor’s baby. Additionally, there is Neelam Masih, 30, who had her home broken into by a man who raped her and tried to force her into marrying him and converting to Islam. If her neighbour hadn’t intervened, she believes she would have been killed.
And the list goes on.
Blasphemy laws and mob rule
Another fear that Pakistan’s nearly three million Christians – of which more than one million are Catholic – live with, is the ever-present threat of a false blasphemy allegation that can lead to imprisonment, social ruin and in some cases, lynching.
For example, on 3 rd December 2021 48-year-old Sri Lankan man, Priyantha Kumara, asked the employees of his garment factory in Sialkot to remove all stickers from factory machines before a visit by a foreign delegation. According to some reports, as part of this Mr Kumara removed a poster produced by the hard-line Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which included Quranic verses. The workers exploded in rage and accused Mr Kumara of blasphemy. He was tortured, lynched and had his body set on fire by an uncontrollable mob. Footage of the lynching proliferated across social media and some of the mob took selfies with his disfigured body. There were initial reports that Mr Kumara was a Christian but it has since emerged that he was probably Buddhist. Nevertheless, this episode gives a perfect example of the danger all minorities can face when a false blasphemy accusation quickly escalates, with catastrophic consequences.
In 2014 a young Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, parents to three children, were burned alive in a brick kiln by a mob for allegedly setting fire to pages of the Qu’ran. As recently as 4 th January this year, Christian man Zafar Bhatti, 58, was sentenced to death by the Pakistan session court of Rawalpindi, after being charged with blasphemy in 2012. Mr Bhatti is accused of sending blasphemous text messages from his phone but has always denied the allegations.
Then, of course, there was the case of Asia Bibi who quickly became the international symbol of the injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Her case has all the hallmarks of a typical blasphemy case – unreliable accusers likely trying to settle a personal score with pressure exerted by an extremist mob. Ms Bibi, a Catholic, was accused of blasphemy in June 2009 after an argument with co-workers and in November 2010 she was sentenced to death by hanging. She was on death row for eight years until her acquittal on 31 st October 2018 due to “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses” which sparked huge
protests led by Islamist parties. After initially being barred from leaving the country, a concession by the Pakistani government to the TLP, Ms Bibi eventually left the country and landed in Canada on 8 th May 2019.
As with many other parts of the world, such as North Korea, China and the Middle East, Pakistani Christians are sometimes conflated with the West. Thus, any unpopular political decisions made by America and European powers, see Christians punished.
According to Cardinal Coutts: “And what is also making it bad for us is again the duplicity, the hypocrisy of the United States. For them [i.e. extremists] the United States, European Union, all the Western countries or let’s say the white people, are Christians.”
He added: “The first time a Church was attacked in Pakistan was a week after the U.S. marines began bombing Afghanistan with B52 bombers and tens of thousands of refugees began pouring across the border, women and children crying. Everyone was shocked. Two young men with automatic rifles burst into a church on a Sunday in Pakistan.”
In the UK, much of the debate around Pakistan has centred on how much aid is sent to the country despite the litany of abuses against Christians and other religious minorities. Pakistan is the top bilateral recipient of UK aid: in 2019/20, the UK sent 302million, and in 2018/19, this number was £325million. Parliamentarians have, unsurprisingly, asked questions about the efficacy of this aid when there are institutional problems in the country. Further, it has been argued that the UK should be using this aid as leverage to enact changes in Pakistan. What sort of message does it send that the UK is happy to send hundreds of millions of pounds a year to a country where courts have adjudicated that a girl is ready for marriage once she has had her first period?
As previously mentioned, ACN campaigned to have asylum granted to Maira Shahbaz, a victim of forced conversion and marriage, who is now living in one room in an undisclosed location. She doesn’t leave her room for fear of violent reprisals. Given that Boris Johnson publicly called for Asia Bibi to be granted asylum in the UK in 2019, it was thought that the same clemency could be extended to Maira who has not only been the victim of gang rape, drugging and blackmail, but who is now, for all intents and purpose, a prisoner inside her own home. At the time of writing, Maira and her family remain in hiding.
An uncertain future
In his interview with Crux, Cardinal Coutts was keen to stress the positives for the Church in Pakistan. He said: “Pakistan is a democracy, a working democracy so far, and we have laws and as I said, we are able to have a voice, thanks be to God. Although we are a very small minority, we are not a hidden minority. I have also led protests down the street.”
As Christmas approached last year, Christians celebrated in the traditional way, with churches lit up with fairy lights and church bells ringing in celebration. Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated the Christian community on the momentous day. Nonetheless, security was beefed up, with CCTV, and security gates at entry and exit points, installed at Christmas
services and celebrations.
As Cardinal Coutts said: “[Extremists] see us Christians as connected and believe that we don’t belong there. But we’re not migrants, mind you. We belong to the country as much as the Muslims and the Hindus and everyone else.” Moreover, he added: “If you come visit Pakistan, you get off at the airport and ask the taxi driver to take you to a church, he will. And it’s public, and visible, not like in Turkey.”
A complex picture emerges. The Pakistani Church is clearly facing visceral challenges that mean its members could find themselves ripped from their families, or accused of blasphemy. Despite this, there is a degree of caution in the rhetoric of high-profile clerics such as Cardinal Coutts who don’t want to make life even more difficult for the faithful. Yet, the message is clear: we’re here to stay.
Fionn Shiner works in the Press and Information department of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.