The Christian community in the Jaranwala district, located on the outskirts of the city of Faisalabad, in the state of Punjab in eastern Pakistan was attacked on Wednesday August 16. Several churches and houses were burnt down. According to the city’s police, two Christians have been accused of blasphemy, which has raised the ire of some Muslims.
“These attacks reinforce the climate of discrimination and fear that weighs on religious minorities,” denounces Rehab Mahamoor, researcher in South Asia for Amnesty International, reacting to the episode of violence in Jaranwala. He points to the impunity with which attacks against minorities are committed, and the risk of violence “that anyone in Pakistan can face on a charge of blasphemy, with religious minorities being disproportionately exposed. »
► What does the Christian minority represent in Pakistan?
Christians are the second largest religious minority in Pakistan, after Hinduism. They represent about 1.6% of the Pakistani population, a tiny part of the 230 million inhabitants who are overwhelmingly Muslim. “Pakistan was built on a Muslim identity,” explains Françoise Briquel Chatonnet, research director at the CNRS. Mohammad Ali Jinnah [son fondateur] wanted a Muslim country, so Hindus and Christians are not considered real Pakistanis. »
Religious minorities (Hindu, Christian, Sikh, etc.) represented at least 20% of the population in 1947, they have dropped to less than 4% today. Although the Constitution of the Islamic Republic guarantees equality between religions, Christians find themselves increasingly marginalized.
► Why are Christians discriminated against?
Most Pakistani Christians are descendants of lower caste Hindus. “Latin Christians are reputed to come from the lower castes of society, they were converted by colonial missionaries, explains Françoise Briquel Chatonnet. Most must have been out of caste or at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and converted to escape this discriminatory system. But the caste system having been maintained with the founding of the Islamic Republic, the newly converted Christians remained in the lower strata of Pakistani society.
They generally occupy menial, disadvantaged or dangerous jobs, often poorly paid, with little hope of social advancement. For most Muslims, Christians are considered unclean. They are called “chouras” by the Muslim majority, which means “untouchables”, those who must not be touched at the risk of being impure in turn.
Assimilated to the West, Christians have been the target of terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan. As a result of this violence, thousands of Pakistani Christians have gone abroad in the hope of obtaining refugee status.
Minority women are at the forefront of these persecutions. A commission attached to the Pakistani Ministry of Human Rights estimates that each year, at least 1,000 young Christian or Hindu girls are forced to convert to Islam.
► Why are Christians more regularly accused of blasphemy?
Blasphemy laws, enacted in the 1980s, hamper freedom of expression for religious minorities. One of them provides that anyone who “profanes the name of the Prophet (…) orally or in writing, or by insinuation, directly or indirectly”, is liable to the death penalty.
“The general, vague and coercive nature of blasphemy laws violates the human rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression,” said Rehab Mahamoor of Amnesty International. They have long been misused to target some of the most marginalized people in society. In Pakistan, a simple charge of blasphemy can be followed by lynching or murder.
This law poisoned relations between the different religious communities, allowing unfounded accusations fueled by personal conflicts, and sparking riots, destruction of places of worship and assassinations. The vulnerability of Christians to the law has pushed some to emigrate.
The Asia Bibi case is a notorious example. Arrested in 2009, this Christian mother was sentenced to death and remained imprisoned for nine years, before being acquitted in February 2019 and exiled to Canada.