A new hope for Pakistani Christians

PAK180618NI00LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistan’s second-ever prince of the church is due for installment on June 29.

In May, Pope Francis tapped Archbishop of Karachi Joseph Coutts to be among 14 new addition cardinals. Coutts would be only the second Pakistani cardinal after Joseph Cordeiro, who was named by Pope Paul VI in 1973 but died in 1994.

The reaction was swift, Coutts, 72, said.

“After the news of my appointment as cardinal came in, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the love I received from the common people, politicians and the media in the country. It was heartening that everybody considered it a great honor for Pakistan,” said Coutts, who has been the top Catholic clergyman in Pakistan since 2012. “People think that I’ll be relocating. I keep telling them that I’ll remain Archbishop of Karachi and becoming a cardinal is an added responsibility.”

Coutts’ nomination has come as good news for beleaguered Pakistani Christians who hope his elevation will bring international attention to their issues.

“We are a religious minority in Pakistan, but now our voice can be heard well in the universal church,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization formed by the Catholics Bishops' Conference of Pakistan. “Archbishop Coutts is a visionary with immense knowledge and in-depth understanding of political matters.”

About 4 million of the country’s largely Muslim 208 million population, Christians are the second-largest religious minority in Pakistan. They often live in the fear of violence and remain one of the most persecuted religious communities in Pakistan.

Many Pakistani practice orthodox versions of Islam that include honor killings of women, attacks on churches, forced conversions and harsh punishments under blasphemy laws that often target Christians.

In the last few months, militants have launched deadly attacks on the Christian community in the southwestern city of Quetta. On Easter Monday, gunmen killed four men from a Christian family. An attack on churchgoers resulted in two deaths on April 15. In December 2017, suicide bombers attacked Bethel Memorial Church, killing nine people.

In its annual ranking of the 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to be a Christian, the non-profit Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan at number five. The World Watch List 2018 noted that much of the Christian persecution in Pakistan comes from radical Islamic groups that flourish under the favor of political parties, the army and the government.

These radical Islamic groups run thousands of Islamic education centers where youth are taught and encouraged to persecute religious minorities like Christians.

“Earlier when we were growing up we hardly faced discrimination on the basis of being Christian,” said Komal Francis, 43, a school teacher in Lahore. “Now my son is bullied in school and no one even wants to sit next to him in class. I have lodged a complaint with the school management, but they don’t feel it is important to address on-campus discrimination. Meanwhile my son suffers.”

Recalling an incident last year in the southern city of Burewala where a Christian schoolboy was beaten to death on campus because of his faith, Francis said she was scared for her son.

“I tell my son to ignore and never respond to the slurs that are hurled at him but honestly I fear, what if some children beat him up?” she worried.

Meanwhile, the country’s blasphemy laws continue to haunt the already-vulnerable community.

Debating aspect of Islam in public, referring to the prophet Mohammad disrespectfully on social media, including satirical memes or even liking posts perceived as anti-Islam content on Facebook or other platforms are a few of the many acts that lead to charges against Christians.

In a recent incident, an 18-year-old Christian, Patras Masih, a sewer cleaner, was accused of posting a blasphemous picture in a Facebook group. He surrendered to the police after a mob threatened to burn down his Christian neighborhood.

Officials from the Federal Investigation Agency apprehended his cousin, Sajid Masih, 24, a janitor, and brought him to Lahore for questioning. Masih claimed he was beaten up and ordered to perform oral sex with his younger cousin. Not wanting to comply, Sajid jumped from the fourth floor of a building and injured himself.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently slammed Pakistan’s abusive enforcement of the strict blasphemy laws resulted in the suppression of rights for non-Muslims.

According to the commission’s report, about 100 blasphemy cases have been registered since 2011 and nearly as many people are currently serving prison sentences for blasphemy charges. Approximately 40 of those imprisoned are awaiting the death penalty or are serving life sentences.

Pakistani convicted of blasphemy include Christian mother and field laborer Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death by hanging based on allegations of blasphemy in 2010 and who has been in jail since awaiting appeal. In February, Rome’s ancient Colosseum was lit in red in solidarity with Bibi and persecuted Christians around the world.

A state governor was gunned down in 2011 after intervening on her behalf, and a Pakistani minister who called for changing the blasphemy laws was killed that same year by gunmen.

“Anybody can be a victim of blasphemy,” says Coutts. Salmaan Taseer, the slain governor, was a powerful man but he was targeted for criticizing the law, he noted.

Citing the example of university student Mashal Khan, who was lynched to death on false rumors of blasphemy in Mardan in March, Coutts expressed concern on the misuse of the blasphemy law.

“The law is being misused so freely and there is total emotionalism in it,” he said, adding that too many Pakistani are quick to turn to mob violence when someone is accused of blasphemy. “Without logic they join and kill.”

Now, taking up his new post, Coutts said he wanted Pakistanis find peace in their hearts.

“Today it is the Christians,” he said. “Tomorrow it will be another weaker community who is a target of society’s discrimination and injustice. It’s a constant struggle. We will try to reach out and help whenever we can.”

Photo: September 14, 2017 - Burewala, Pakistan - Razia Masih, who is Christian, holds a photo of her son Sharoon Masih, a 17-year-old high school student who died in a hate crime beating that took place at a campus in August 2017.
Credit: Mehwish Edwin/ ARA Network Inc. (09/14/17)

Story/photo published date: 06/26/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.
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