Imran Paul, 31, a Pakistani Christian from the Dera Ghazi Khan (DGK) district in South Punjab, has experienced serious persecution while growing up. Imran talked about the discrimination and mistreatment he experienced at school because of his Christian faith. For that matter, Imran was compelled to leave a public school in DGK and continued his studies at a missionary school in Multan.
For higher education, he became cautious of faith-based discrimination and got admission to Forman Christian (FC) College, Lahore, to complete his graduation. The nightmare of faith-based disrespect at school did not allow him to continue his career in the country and he chose to move abroad for his career advancement.
Due to the shrinking social space for minorities in Pakistan, Imran, for a long time, has been working in Saudi Arabia and Canada and often visits Pakistan to see his family. He shared that religious discrimination is not limited to academic institutes, but it has affected their places of worship as well. He told me there was no single church in DGK to perform their religious rituals. It took his father 38 years to get land for a church there.
Unfortunately, the district administration was allowed to build a church on part of the land that was already kept aside for the Christian graveyard. Imran further expressed apprehension over religious discrimination at places of worship. He lamented that the Muslim majority joins the Christian community at events like ‘Easter’ to show inter-faith harmony, but Christians cannot enter the mosque fearing blasphemy accusations.
Pakistan is a culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse country but the minorities here are discriminated against in various fields and their lives in the country are characterized by numerous issues. A member from Imran’s community at DGK expressed his concerns about the shrinking minority population in Pakistan. According to the 2017 consensus, Christians accounted for 1.27% (about 2.5 million) of the country’s total population, a decrease of 0.32% from the 1998 census. While agreeing with the fact that Christians have migrated due to discriminatory state behavior, he suspected undercounting of Christians in the last census.
The first three months of 2021 proved to be another challenging time for Christians in Pakistan as a total of 25 incidents of blasphemy accusations, religiously motivated murders, abductions, and forced conversions against Christians were noted, according to the International Christian Concern. Moreover, it is regrettable to note the poor literacy rate of religious minorities in Pakistan. As per the 1998 census, only 34% of Pakistani Christians are literate. None of the Christian-run schools is among the beneficiaries of the Punjab Education Foundation, according to a survey done by the Centre of Social Justice. Also, out of 118 nationalized Christian institutions, 50% had yet to be denationalized in 2020, according to the Centre of Social Justice.
The Covid-19 epidemic has terribly affected the minorities. It is during lockdown that 70% of Christians have lost their jobs and faced a drop in monthly income, according to a study by the Pakistan Partnership Initiative. The International Christian Concern (ICC) noted that minority groups mainly Hindus and Christians in Pakistan are being denied relief aid like food due to their religious identity. Pakistan ranked 5th in the list of 50 countries worldwide where Christians are persecuted, according to a report by a Christian advocacy group. It has been designated as a “country of particular concern” by the US on the recommendation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
After the Peshawar church attack in 2013, the supreme court of Pakistan issued a landmark decision on the protection of minorities and freedom of religion, authored by Former Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani. He had taken suo-motu notice of violations of religious freedom and the rights of minorities. The judgment noted that the 5% quota reserved for minorities in government jobs has been ignored badly. However, the judgment does not appear to have garnered any noticeable reaction from the government.
Jillani’s judgment clearly endorsed the provision of reserved jobs to the minorities, but citizens like Imran could not get respectable employment opportunities and hence left for abroad. Imran also noted that the minorities are reluctant to join mainstream public sector jobs due to fear of isolation and discrimination. The government has not done anything to address the fear of minorities in this regard.
The prosperity and development of any nation depend upon its socioeconomic factors. The socio-economic condition of Christians residing in Pakistan is very bleak. All Christians in Pakistan are potential victims of abuse and discrimination. The conundrum is their jobs are perceived as low, dirty, and dishonorable. They make up between 80% to 90% of the sanitation workforce, according to the National Commission on Human Rights. The government-sponsored recruitment discrimination is usually witnessed in job advertisements throughout Pakistan. It is reported that Christian girls in the country are at risk of rape, abduction, and forced marriage. They continue to face difficulties in registering marriages with union councils. According to one Christian advocacy group, all Christians in Pakistan “are considered second-class citizens, inferior to Muslims”.
It is pertinent to note that minorities are equal citizens of Pakistan. Imran, a citizen of Pakistan from the Christian community, is entitled to the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. If he feels unsafe pursuing his life goals in the country, it poses a big question to the state’s promises of equal citizenship and protection of minority rights. To ensure Imran’s security and strengthen the equality of citizenship, the government needs to implement Justice Jillani’s landmark judgment in true spirit.
Peter Jacob, a human rights activist and Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice, lamented that the government has failed to comply with the aforementioned commitment to ensure the security of religious minorities. He said that the political system, public policy, and state behavior have undermined the implementation of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the rights of minorities in Pakistan. He underlined that the verdict received nationwide and global appreciation but merely 22% progress on it has been made in eight years.
The government of Pakistan appears to have failed to ensure the rights of religious minorities as defined in the constitution of Pakistan. The government needs to ensure that the minorities are beneficiaries of the officially declared quota for jobs. The federal and provincial governments should also provide safe working spaces to minorities in public sector organizations. It should develop a curriculum at the school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance. Moreover, the inclusion of minority groups in policy reforms is important.