KAMRAN CHAUDHRY. Asia Bibi’s freedom a victory for Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Although 2019 was a mixed year for Catholics in the Islamic republic, there were some encouraging signs.

So, how was your year? Perhaps now is the best time to take stock of events in Pakistan as church activities kick into full gear for Christmas.

Here in the Islamic republic, clergymen face a tight schedule of Christmas programs and winter weddings. Even the khateeb (preacher) of the historic Badshahi mosque in Lahore spent a busy Advent Sunday with a visiting interfaith group, most of them peace activists and students, wearing Santa caps.

However, the most delightful news for minority Christians came in May when Asia Bibi, one of the most high-profile victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, finally left for Canada. The Catholic mother of five was acquitted after spending eight years on death row since being convicted of blasphemy in 2010. It was a victory for religious minorities in Pakistan often targeted by Islamic hardliners.

“Blasphemy law is a fitna (sedition). Its victims continue languishing behind bars in the absence of a trial. Even judges put their lives at stake announcing judgments in such cases,” renowned jurist and law professor Nasira Iqbal told me.

“Such a statement puts me at risk as well, but I am too old to care.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government came to power in 2018 on the slogan of “Naya (new) Pakistan.” Bibi’s flight to freedom heralds those winds of change.

The iconic cricketer-turned-politician hit another six when he laid the foundation stone for a corridor connecting Indian Sikhs with their holy place of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Kartarpur village, where Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak died in 1539. The initiative helps Sikhs travel between these holy places without restrictions.

The four-kilometer corridor has united the Punjabi community across the border irrespective of their religious beliefs. Indian tourists are now posting emotional vlogs sharing their experiences with Muslims in Pakistan. Hats off to them for that.

Interfaith gatherings were also the biggest trend in Lahore Archdiocese as part of the official Year of Dialogue. A banner condemning violence in Kashmir and expressing solidarity with “Kashmiri brothers” has been emblazoned at the entrance of Sacred Heart Cathedral since India’s government amended laws to take away Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood in August.

Similar banners were erected on the road leading to Mariamabad village during the 70th annual pilgrimage to the National Marian Shrine. This is the first time the Kashmir crisis became one of the themes for the largest Christian congregation in the country.

Restrictions on religious freedom

And now for some bad news. In November, a mob of 30 men raided a Catholic church in Arifwala subdistrict of Punjab province, destroying its boundary wall and gate. They also removed a cross from a wall.

In May, a mob attacked two families in the same area after a mosque announced on its loudspeakers that Christians had insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

Meanwhile, the state continued illegal seizures of church property as Peshawar High Court declared a Christian college as a nationalized educational institution under the provincial government in October. The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has now constituted a three-member committee to look into the status of the oldest missionary education institution in the province.

The government is apparently making policies all by itself without taking any minority members on board. Previously four church schools and two colleges remained in government hands.

A recent report published by the Pew Research Center found that Pakistan had a score of 6.6 on a scale of 10 on an index that analyses official restrictions placed on religious freedom. It is also among the very populous countries with the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion.

According to the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights (PCMR), 159 cases of forced conversions took place from 2013-19. Throughout Pakistan but in Sindh province in particular, women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Hindus and Christians, have fallen victim to coercive, forced and unethical faith conversions, coinciding with equally detestable forced marriages against their will.

The perpetrators running this business are well known and their names have been reported by the media. These so-called religious personalities also issue conversion certificates without any legal basis. The law must immediately take its course. Strict action against declared offenders will increase minorities’ confidence in the criminal justice system.

Sadly, the so-called guardians of religion continue to play havoc with both minority and human rights. Discussion on religion and its misuse has become a taboo in courtrooms, classrooms and public spheres. Differences about the personality of the Prophet Muhammad have already sparked sects in the majority religion. Fear of death has silenced independent opinion.

Peter Jacob, the Catholic chairman of the PCMR, believes 2019 provided a mixed picture for religious freedom in Pakistan. “There is a new hope as people are now taking initiatives and raising questions vital to their survival. The society is maturing and asking for reforms. Especially the youth is in a reactive mode,” he told me.

His views resonate with Pakistan’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which announced 2020 as the Year of Youth to promote often neglected young Catholics in the country. In a message, Pope Francis sent his cordial greetings and assured his prayers for young people in Pakistan.

Another gift from the Holy Father included the appointment of Father Joseph Indrias Rehmat, dean of the National Catholic Institute of Theology, as bishop of Faisalabad in June.

As we say goodbye to 2019, I would like to end this commentary with a YouTube comment under my video on the Year of Youth: “When will they launch the year of the Pakistani ghareebs (poor)?” Perhaps the answer lies within the appointment of an educationalist bishop. Thank you, Papa Francisco.

Kamran Chaudhry writes from Lahore, Pakistan. The article was published in La Croix International,December 14, 2019.

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