Media outlets reported that 16 Pakistani Christians were kidnapped by militants in the NWFP on Saturday, although sources reported that they were released hours later. News reports differed on the number of people kidnapped. Although several sources, including The News, reported that 25 Christians were abducted, more recent wire services confirmed that the number was actually 16. A resident of the Christian Colony, the site of the kidnapping located in Peshawar, told The News, “There were a large number of people gathered at around 8 pm and were preparing for worship when armed men broke into the building and picked up 25 to 40 Christians in pick-up vans.” The news agency added, “Sources said that the militants had warned the residents of the Christian Colony to vacate the building as it was once part of a local Madrassa. The Christians were not ready to vacate the property.”
A senior police official confirmed to the Associated Press and Reuters that the men were kidnapped while they were praying, although he noted the number abducted was much smaller than eyewitness reports. Media outlets reported that following successful negotiations with the militants, police officials secured the release of the abducted Christians early Sunday. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly condemned the act, telling reporters during a parliamentary session, “We condemn this act and, despite the recovery of the abductees, an enquiry will be held to uncover the faces behind the incident.”
Although news outlets reporting on the development today noted that in recent years, “there has been little violence specifically targeting Christians” in Peshawar, the story nevertheless presents an opportunity to discuss the overarching plight and persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. According to the CIA World Factbook, Muslims make up 97% of the country, while other religious groups (Christians and Hindus) comprise of only 3%. Moreover, of the Muslim population, 77% are Sunni, while 20% are Shias. A recent piece in the LA Times reported that there are approximately 6,000 Christians in Pakistan, adding, “religious equality is the elusive Pakistani dream.” The news agency noted, “Because of restrictive laws, they are barred from equal pay, educational opportunities and housing. Intimidated by rising Islamic extremism, many are afraid to wear any outward symbols of their faith. Dozens are in jail on the basis of draconian blasphemy laws that forbid anyone to defame Islam.“
What are these blasphemy laws? According to BBC News, “Sentiments on the ground against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan became serious only after 1977 when General Zia ul-Haq introduced a blasphemy law to please the religious parties supporting his martial law.” Ultimately, the law mandates that any “blasphemies” of the Quran are to be met with punishment. However, because of the ambiguity associated with such legislation, human rights activists say it has been manipulated by extremists in order to persecute religious minorities. According to the BBC, the law was also misused by Muslim landlords in Pakistan’s countryside “to grab land from Christians by framing them in blasphemy cases, especially in the Punjab province.” Moreover, the LA Times noted it was used to “rid neighborhoods of unwanted minorities,” although government officials deny such charges.
These laws carry a penalty of life imprisonment and even death, often without evidence “or any penalty for false accusations.” The Times piece cited a 2007 State Department report, which noted that no person has been executed for blasphemy. However, a Christian man in May of last year was sentenced to death following two years in prison, for telling “a group of Muslims to lower their noise because his family was mourning the loss of his nephew, whose body was laid out in his home. The men accused him of blasphemy.” This past Wednesday, media outlets reported that a Muslim man was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. According to Felice Gaer, of Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a former chairwoman of the commission, “Blasphemy is used as a weapon…Once charged, you can be in prison for years while your case is adjudicated.”
Inter-religious violence and persecution does not just stop with the Pakistani Christian minority, however. The country’s sectarian tensions are also significant within this context. According to Amir Mir at the Monthly Herald,
Available figures indicate that, between January 1989 and May 31, 2005 a total of 1,784 Pakistanis were killed, and another 4,279 injured in 1,866 incidents of sectarian violence and terror across the country. This averages out to over 100 persons per year over the past 17 years, with no end in sight.
The BBC News reported [in 2004], “Most sectarian violence in Pakistan takes place in the province of Punjab and the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, in Sindh province,” although attacks also occur in Balochistan. A feature in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Vali Nasr, author of the The Shiite Revival, who discussed a suicide bombing that struck Shia processions for Ashura in February of last year, noting, “In Pakistan, it is not a battle like in Iraq. But in Pakistan, you have the same violence … driving the conflict…We are going to see increasing occurrences of the bombings like we’ve seen over the weekend.” Although parallels between the Iraqi sectarian conflict and the tensions in Pakistan are questionable, the violence that is occurring in the country is significant and troublesome. Just two days ago, nine people were killed and 30 were wounded in suspected sectarian violence in northwest Pakistan. The town, Parachinar, reported the AFP, “was rocked by bloody sectarian clashes in April in which some 50 people were killed.” Although Shias are the minority in Pakistan, they account for a majority in Parachinar.
The simmering sectarian tensions and the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan are issues that cannot be ignored, particularly by a coalition that was democratically elected and claims to represent the Pakistani people. In the case of yesterday’s kidnapping of the Pakistani Christians, the government must do more than just issue statements condemning these acts and ordering “probes.” They must look inward at the very issues that have allowed such disparities to occur in the first place. [Image from the BBC]