A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities

A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities
Photo Credit: Faisal Saeed
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Good Friday at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore
The sound of the generator resonates in the large hall of the Church. Power outages in the city have become worse forcing the Church administration to keep a generator on standby for such gatherings. The Bishop, Sebastian Shaw, is addressing the crowd. His sermon is in Urdu, interjected with a few Punjabi phrases to stress a particular point and make a connection with the people. He talks about how Christ was betrayed by his disciple Judas, as well as other city dwellers out of fear of retribution. “They accused our beloved Christ of blasphemy. According to the tradition of that time, he was made to carry his cross which was used to crucify him through the entire city. Murderers and other criminals at that time were made to carry their crosses in the manner that our beloved Christ was. But he bore all this patiently. He did that for you; to give you a lesson in patience and humility. If he wanted he could have punished those people right there and then, proving to them that he is indeed the King of Heaven. But he did not because he wanted to save us. He taught us that no matter how bad the situation gets we should bear it patiently. He knew that non-believers would attack his followers like they attacked him till the end. But remember they would only be testing our commitment to our Lord. Christ wants us to be patient in this ordeal.”
On the morning of 6th May 1998, the then Bishop of Lahore, John Joseph asked his driver to prepare the car earlier than usual. In a couple of hours they reached the Sahiwal civil court about one hundred and fifty kilometres from Lahore. The Bishop had visited the court several times prior to this visit as he was following the case of a young Christian man by the name of Ayub Masih who had been accused of blasphemy. The 26 year old man had been languishing in Sahiwal Jail and his case was being heard in the civil court that day. He had been accused of blasphemy by his Muslim neighbour. Throughout the proceedings, the Bishop maintained that the motivation behind the case was a property dispute between the Christian and the Muslim neighbour but as the case headed towards its conclusion, it became increasingly clear that the judge was likely to rule against the Christian accused. The punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan is death!

Bishop John Joseph who was the first Punjabi priest and then the first native Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Pakistan had spent a life dedicated to political activism along with his religious commitments. Over the years, he had represented several blasphemy accused, helping them with their cases and finding them lawyers. In 1993, the Bishop had been involved in another high-profile case. That case concerned an eleven year old boy, Salamat Masih and a thirty-eight year-old man Manzoor Masih, who were accused of scribbling blasphemous material on a neighbourhood wall. The Bishop argued that the accused were illiterate. Using that evidence the High Court judge, Arif Bhatti acquitted the blasphemy accused. Later however the judge was gunned down in his own chamber for supporting a blasphemer, a blasphemy in itself. Before the assassination of the judge, Manzoor Masih was also shot down in front of the civil and session courts while Salamat Masih sustained injuries. After the death of Manzoor Masih, the Bishop promised himself that there would be no more deaths to the blasphemy laws as long as he was alive. A celebrated figure in his community, throughout his political activism days the Bishop maintained that blasphemy laws be revoked.

Outside the Sahiwal civil court the driver and the junior priest who were accompanying the Bishop wondered why they were there. Only ten days prior to that day, the court had sentenced Ayub Masih to death having found him guilty of blasphemy. What happened next was shocking, to say the least. Standing outside the gates of the court the Bishop using a handgun shot himself in the head as a protest against the sentence of Ayub Masih. In a letter that was found after his protest suicide Bishop John Joseph stated:

“I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.”

He hoped that his protest suicide would ultimately turn public opinion against the outrageous blasphemy laws and the government would be forced to revoke them. His sacrifice, like that of Christ, was meant to be the reason for the salvation of millions of Christians living in Pakistan. However, nothing changed.
Sitting inside the sunlit hall members listen with devotion, their heads lowered in respect. Volunteers sitting outside are not allowing any more people inside the hall, which is overflowing well beyond its capacity. Father Ansari sitting behind the Bishop monitors the crowd as if checking as to who is paying attention and who is not. In front of them, a couple of cameramen from local television channels record the proceedings moving from spot to spot trying to capture as many angles as possible, unaware and unconcerned of the protocol one is expected to follow in front of the Bishop. These are concluding proceedings of Good Friday, the day when Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, was crucified for committing “blasphemy” and fomenting dissent against the Roman Empire, which ruled over the region at that time. “This was the sacrifice of the Christ for the people,” says the Bishop.

The relevance of the holy day is not lost on the members of the audience. They know that they are a persecuted minority with members from the community often accused of committing blasphemy. The Bishop doesn’t make that connection between the blasphemy of their saviour and today’s Christian “blasphemers”; he doesn’t need to. The atmosphere in the Church is sombre, as if the Bishop is not making a religious speech but a poignant political one. Despite its religious references his sermon is politically relevant to the Christian community today in Pakistan. The “blasphemer” Christ could be seen as a symbol for all those individuals who have suffered as blasphemy accused. The Christian community understands that they weren’t really blasphemers, they were victims of the wrath of the majority. The patience that the Bishop extolls during his speech is for this persecuted minority targeted because of its religious beliefs.
46 year old Aslam Nayamat is standing next to the gate wearing a crisp white shalwar kameez, supporting black Ray Ban glasses. He is a tall well-built man with a short moustache and grey hair. Standing next to the gate he monitors the security of the Church. Usually lax, the guards are particularly attentive today, checking the National Identity Cards (NIC) of all the visitors. Once again, no Muslim is allowed.

On being questioned, he doesn’t explain the exact nature of his job at the Church, giving instead a vague answer. “A few years ago, there was a scandal within the clergy regarding property. There is vast property associated with the Church, which was allegedly sold by someone. So in 2010, I was called in to look after it and devise a system for greater transparency.” He doesn’t want to share what that scandal was or who was involved. He enjoys a particular reputation in the Church and often interacts with the Bishop.

For a decade before he joined the Church he was employed at the Pakistan Congress for Equality and Harmony (PPCEH), an organization that reports to the Church. Here Nayamat was responsible for working with persecuted segments of the religious minorities, focusing on but not limited to the Christian community. He spent most of his time interacting with blasphemy accused victims and under the guidance of Bishop John Joseph initially and subsequent Bishops, he helped them with lawyers and looking after their family. “Once someone is accused of blasphemy, his/her life can never return to normalcy. Even if the court acquits them, they constantly remain under the fear of extrajudicial murder. Not only the accused, but even their families also come under threat. In a lot of instances, we have had to hide the families of the accused as well. I would do so undertaking personal risk. There is an environment of fear because of which the blasphemy accused, even if innocent, is doomed. No lawyer wants to risk taking the case. The judges feel threatened. I have visited the accused in the jails and I can’t even tell you the conditions they live in. They are harassed by their fellow inmates. The police officials physically torture them. They are not even given proper food or bedding like the other prisoners. Those in the death cells are treated better compared to the blasphemy accused. They all become psychological patients, who find it very hard to reintegrate into mainstream society. A majority of those cases are those which are fabricated as a result of personal enmities or property issues. I remember an old woman who I worked with. She had rented out some property to a Muslim prayer leader of a mosque, who was very bad with paying rent. Often, the Christian landlord and the tenant would argue and the prayer leader would threaten her. Then one day, he went to the police station and registered a case of blasphemy against her stating that she had insulted the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH), whereas there was no such thing. Knowing well enough that submitting herself to the police and expecting justice in this highly charged atmosphere would be ridiculous, she fled and has been on the run ever since. It has been three years since she left her home. Tired, she now wants to stop running but I don’t let her. Even if the court acquits her, some fanatic would gun her down like they have so many other such innocent people.”

“Let them in,” says Nayamat gesturing to the security guards to allow a group of young Christian devotees to enter the Church carrying cartons of juice and other eatables. Politely declining the offer of juice or chips, he instructs the boys to move along the passage leading to the Bishop’s house and distribute it amongst the people in the ground. “This is to avoid the accumulation of too many people at this spot which is being used for entry and exit,” he explains. As the boys unload their cartons and start distributing it to the crowd gathered in the lawns of the Church, a rush of people gather around them, screaming, snatching and pulling to get their share of this free offering in the name of God.

“There is no such tradition of distributing food on holy days,” says Nayamat as he looks on at the scramble for free food. “This is a new tradition that has started recently. Young members of the community look at how Muslims distribute free food at Islamic shrines to seek the blessings of the Saint and get inspired by these non-Christian practices.”

“I used to be a businessman and had no intention of ever being involved in political activism,” says Nayamat. “My house was in a Christian dominated village near Khanewal. In 1997 after the Shanti Nagar incident, I wrapped up my business and moved to Lahore. That incident was my introduction into the world of religious fanaticism, something I had never experienced prior to that. Neighbours and friends who had known us for years were driven crazy by the passion of religion. The incident broke my heart and I could no longer live there.”
About a kilometre from the village of Shanti Nagar, next to the canal that is the lifeline of the village and the reason why it is the most prosperous village in the surroundings, there is an abandoned white mosque under the shade of a Pipal tree – the tree of peace and spirituality. On the night of 5th February 1997, a couple of days after the national elections of Pakistan, in an unusual series of events a few Muslims decided to offer their evening prayers at this abandoned mosque. However, before they could bow down before Allah, they discovered charred pages from the Holy Book of Quran lying in the courtyard of this mosque with the names of the seven culprits conveniently noted down on the margins of one of the pages. A note scribbled down on an empty space next to the names mentioned defiantly that these seven people were responsible for the burning of the pages of the Holy Quran – an act of blasphemy and punishable by death – and also urged Muslims to take revenge if they dared.

The news spread like wild fire as mosques all around the neighbouring villages and the city of Khanewal, a few kilometres from here, started spewing hatred and sought revenge against the Christians. Within hours, Muslims from all over the area started gathering at this mosque, the site of the blasphemous act. In the meantime, a First Information Report (FIR) was also registered against the seven accused culprits, one of whom was Ahmad Gill, a cousin of Aslam Nayamat.

Unaware of the simmering situation Ahmad Gill was returning from a wedding ceremony in Khanewal along with his family – two children and wife – late in the night. “There was a huge gathering of people on the canal numbering in the several thousands. They had blocked the road with burning tyres and were gesturing at me to stop. I knew that something was wrong but would have stopped the car had my wife Mary not asked me to keep on driving. I sped up the car and slamming against the people who were falling on my windscreen and thundering at the windows, I dug through the crowd. You can imagine our condition at that moment. Our children were crying and we were scared. Taking a brick one of the protestors smashed my windscreen. My children’s eyes could have been permanently damaged by the impact of the glass but thank God, nothing happened. Another man leapt into the car through the windscreen and jumped at me with a knife. I held it with my hand and averted the attack. I felt at that moment as if my time had come and started praying to Jesus Christ. Right then out of nowhere four Christian boys emerged and shielded the car and my family from the angry mob and got us through. I don’t know where those boys came from and how were they able to rescue us safely in the midst of a raging crowd. I later realized that they were angels. I don’t think the crowd knew that I was Ahmad Gill, otherwise they would have never allowed me to pass through alive.”

All through the night, the crowd swelled as Christians in the twin villages of Shanti Nagar and Tibba could only observe the situation from a safe distance. A message was conveyed to the villagers to hand over the seven blasphemers upon which the crowd would disperse peacefully. However the villagers were aware of the fact that if that was done, those men, whom they regarded as innocent would be lynched by the mob, something the villagers were not willing to concede despite the looming threat of the mob descending upon the village in a fury.

Early in the morning, scared for their lives, the villagers from Tibba, an almost entirely Christian village abandoned their homes and took refuge in Shanti Nagar, a much larger village. At the centre of this village, elders from the community gathered to discuss the approaching danger. Here they were assured by police representatives who had by now arrived from Khanewal that the crowd was peaceful and only wanted to pass through the village venting their anger at the act of blasphemy. The police officials assured them that no one would be attacked. To make sure that no untoward incident occurred while the protesting crowd passed through these Christian villages the police managed to convince the elders to submit all private arms and ammunition to the authorities. Satisfied by the promises of the police, the elders of the village were able to convince most of the villagers to hand over their weapons. A few however refused to follow these instructions. They were the lucky ones.

Ahmad Gill who still resides in the village is of the opinion that this was not a sporadic event, a result of a few burnt pages of the Quran. “This had been building up for quite some time. On the 17th of January about fifteen days before the incident the police raided the house of a Christian man from the village called Baba Raji. They alleged that he was involved in the illegal business of making and selling liquor. During the raid, as a result of the callousness of the police a copy of the Bible which was placed on one of the shelves fell on the ground. The police used to raid different houses of the village randomly on one pretext or the other. The truth is that the Muslims of the surrounding areas are jealous of the prosperity of this village. Compared to the water supply of the neighbouring villages, the water from the canal that passes through Shanti Nagar is particularly suitable for agriculture, which is why the yield here is much better than that of the neighbouring Muslim village. A Christian landlord from Shanti Nagar does much better than a Muslim landlord with the same landholding from the neighbouring village. This is something that Muslims could never come to terms with. The police would frequently take our men and lock them up knowing well enough that other members from the community would be able to pay bribes for them.”

Shanti Nagar, which literally means the land of peace, was established in 1916 by a Christian missionary by the name of William Youth Tucker, a representative of the Salvation Army. Purchasing vast tracts of land around the village, he distributed it to the native Christian families. Based on its strategic location next to the canal, the Christian landlords of the village have thrived making this village a unique case study in the social fabric of the Punjab. Whereas in most of the villages across the province, Muslims are the dominant landowners, while Christians are confined to menial jobs associated with the untouchable caste, here the Christians are the dominant landowners, while the few Muslims who remain are economically vulnerable. In a regular village where Christians are on the lower rung of the social and economic hierarchy they would be treated as untouchables. In Shanti Nagar, however, the low-caste Muslims are not treated as untouchables. The only tandoor in the village is run by a Muslim, a profession unacceptable for a Christian in a Muslim dominated village.

“Our villagers were also aware of the general persecution of the Christian community by Muslims and how they are often accused of blasphemy on the basis of alleged desecration of the Quran. When our holy book, the Bible was mistreated by the Muslim police officials raiding Baba Raji’s house members of the community felt that it was time to give the Muslims a dose of their own medicine. They decided to report a blasphemy case against a police constable responsible for the fall of the Holy Book. That was the fatal blow to our community.”

Most of the residents of Shanti Nagar feel that the burning of pages from Quran and the names of the seven culprits on the edge was orchestrated by the police to seek revenge for the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of the Christian villagers, considered a lowly caste. The concerned constable who had been accused of blasphemy was suspended from service after the interference of highranking police officials. They also believe that disarming the villagers just before the attack of the Muslim mob was part of the plan to deal a severe blow to the Christian community.

An angry mob first turned towards the empty village of Tibba and burned several buildings down. “There were about fifty to sixty thousand people,” recalls 45 year old Saima Rabnawaz, a resident of the village and a teacher at the Salvation Army School. “Some of the boys in the mob were no older than thirteen or fourteen. A few of them were Muslim students of the same school that they were now burning. There is a Church behind the school which was also burned.” Saima shivers in agony as she recalls that fateful day. “It was people we knew who attacked us. We had relationships with them, interacting with them on deaths and marriages. I regarded some of them as my friends; but not anymore. I don’t interact with Muslims now having realized that no matter how sweet they are to you they can never be trusted. They can harm us any day when it comes to their religion.”

After the havoc at Tibba, the mob turned towards Shanti Nagar destroying agricultural fields on the way and stealing animals. “There was a beautiful mango orchard at the entrance of the village. The mob burned it down. It successfully burned half of the village down before the army arrived from Khanewal to restore order. When they came, they caught many people stealing our animals. So much for religious fervour,” jokes Ahmad Gill. The damage at this village would have been worse had a few members of the community not held on to their weapons defying the orders of the police. From within their houses they fired threatening shots into the crowd and this kept the angry mob away from certain quarters of the village. Order was restored and the crowd scattered within hours after the arrival of the army. As news of this attack spread, both national and international media descended upon this village, forcing the newly elected Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab to also visit the village and speed up the recovery process. Funds were allocated for the reconstruction of the burnt houses and shops.

However, while Shanti Nagar was physically reconstructed, the traumatic components of the attack and underlining prejudices that spurred the attacks were left unattended leaving room for similar attacks in the future. In 2005, an identical attack was launched against a Christian settlement in Sangla Hill, followed by attacks on Gojra and Bahmniwala, Kasur, in 2009, all of which happen to be located in Punjab. The story of a few burnt pages from the Quran found in local mosques seems to happen often.

Sher Khursheed was another person blamed in the FIR for blasphemy. After the attack, his six year old son started suffering from schizophrenia and now lives in the Lahore Mental Hospital, where his father visits him regularly. Another child from the community who is now a young man has not left his home since the attack. A number of elderly from the village passed away due to heart attacks as the mob came raging in. Most importantly the attack has destroyed the relationship between the Muslims and Christians of the area. “For at least three or four years after the event, we served the Muslims in separate utensils giving them a taste of their own biases,” says Khursheed staring with his blood shot eyes suppressing inexpressible anger and frustration. “Every time I go to the neighbouring Muslim village, which I have to often,” says Mary, the wife of Ahmad Gill. “I feel afraid. Even though I enjoy a friendly relationship with them I still feel that I cannot trust them.” Lying in the obscurity of rural Punjab more than three hundred kilometres from Lahore, the Christian dominated village of Shanti Nagar is still there, trying to put together its shattered rhythm and trying to come to terms with the events of 6th February 1997.
“We love Pakistan because it is our country,” says the Bishop as he prepares to conclude the sermon. He has the lost the passion that had gripped him while talking about the persecution of Christ. His words now sound hollow losing its effect and grip on the audience that he commanded only a few minutes ago. This part is now for the media, its rhetoric a re-affirmation of the loyalty that members of the religious minorities are deprived of often in Muslim Pakistan. “And no matter how bad the situation gets, we will face all persecution with compassion, with love. That was the message of Christ. That is what he wanted to teach us through his crucifixion.”

Excerpted with permission from A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities, Haroon Khalid, Westland. His next book, In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan, has just been published.