What hope for Pak Christians under Nawaz Sharif?

June 23, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Nawaz SharifPakistan June 20, 2013: Nawaz Sharif last week took office as prime minister of Pakistan, his third time in the position, following his party’s victory in the general election on 11 May.

It is a remarkable comeback for the 63-year-old leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) who was jailed and then exiled after being ousted in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Sharif was convicted of hijacking, terrorism and corruption.

He had first served as prime minister from November 1990 to July 1993 and then for a second time from February 1997 to October 1999.

Sharif was a protégé of military leader General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. He served under him as Punjab province’s finance and then chief minister from 1985-1990.

Under Zia and Sharif, Pakistan moved in an increasingly fundamentalist direction; the constitution became more overtly Islamic and the country’s blasphemy laws were strengthened through amendments that have been devastating for the Christian minority. Sharif has been accused of taking a soft line on militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.

As he heads the government for a third time, what hope is there for Christians who have suffered years of discrimination, abuse, violence and injustice?

WELCOME MOVES

There have been some positive signs. During election rallies, Sharif promised that his party would give equal rights to minorities, including Christians. Of course many such promises are made by politicians when there are votes to be won and only time will tell whether the new prime minister will deliver on this.

Though in opposition nationally before the elections, the PML-N were in power in Punjab province, where around 80% of Pakistani Christians live, with Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz at the helm.

The party won support among the Christian community with its uncharacteristically positive response to the attack on Joseph Colony, where 178 Christian homes were torched by a Muslim mob in March.

The Christian neighbourhood of Joseph Colony was attacked in MarchShahbaz Sharif apologised to the Christian community and promised that the perpetrators would be dealt with severely. The District Coordination Office set up emergency shelters and provided food for the victims. And repair work on the torched houses and other buildings got underway almost immediately with each family receiving compensation of 500,000 Rupees (£3,350; US$5,100). Police were deployed to protect the Christian community from further violence and scores of arrests were made.

But with an election just a couple of months away, these actions may have been carried out with the polls in mind and again, only time will tell if they signify a lasting shift in the attitude towards and treatment of Christians.

WORRYING RECORD

The PML-N has previously been implicated in acts of violence against Christians. Local party leaders rallied Muslims against Christians in Gojra on 1 August 2009; eight Christians were killed and at least 50 homes burnt down as Muslims rioted over rumours that Christians had used torn-up pages of the Quran as confetti at a wedding. The PML-N had recently been elected to power in the province.

A senior judge was commissioned to investigate the incident and found that the violence could have been prevented. Intelligence agencies knew that banned extremist groups were organising the mobs but did nothing to stop them while police were criticised for fleeing the scene and failing to protect the Christians. Nobody has been prosecuted for the violence.

Often underpinning hostility and violence towards Christians in Pakistan are the country’s“blasphemy laws”; Sharif played a significant part in developing these laws during his previous periods in government.

Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code originally offered equal protection for all religions and lenient sentences, but in the 1980s and 1990s amendments were introduced under General Zia and Sharif that were designed to protect only Islam; offenses were added and penalties increased.

Zia added the controversial sections 295-B and 295-C in 1982 and 1986 respectively; the former made desecration of the Quran punishable by mandatory life imprisonment while under the latter, “defiling the name of Muhammad” carried the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Under Sharif’s first government, a ruling made by the Federal Shari’at Court that removed the option of life imprisonment for offences committed under 295-C came into effect.

The strengthening of the blasphemy laws came alongside an increasing Islamisation of thePakistan constitution. Sharif was stopped short of implementing sharia law as he attempted to do in May 1998 through the 15th amendment to the constitution. The move was opposed in the senate and Sharif was subsequently deposed by General Musharraf.

During the 2013 election campaign, Sharif reaffirmed his support for the blasphemy laws and against making any changes to them, unsurprising given his part in their development.

On 29 May, the Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan warned the government against amending the laws, saying that the country’s minorities would be unsafe if they did so.

It is actually minorities who already suffer the most under these pernicious laws. They are vulnerable to malicious, false accusations, which frequently result in acts of vigilante violence for which the perpetrators rarely face any comeback.

Between 1986 and 2012 an estimated 1,200 people were charged under the blasphemy laws; half were minorities, a disproportionately high figure given that they comprise only five per cent of the population.

SURPRISING SUPPORT

In light of Sharif and the PML-N’s record, it may come as a surprise that many Pakistani Christians voted for them. Perhaps this was in the hope that Sharif’s time in exile has made him a changed man.

The reality for Pakistani Christians is that they do not have the option of backing a candidate who will champion their cause. Political parties never put forward Christian candidates to stand in elections, knowing that the overwhelmingly Muslim population would never vote for them.

The only way that a Christian can get a seat in parliament is through the reserved seats for minorities, of which there are only ten and these are divided between different groups. Only two or three are given to Christians, leaving the community with virtually no representation in parliament.

Those who have tried to defend the rights of Christians have paid the highest price. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were killed in 2011 over their support for jailed Christian mother Aasia Bibi and call for change to the blasphemy laws.

Christians can only pray that Sharif will keep his promises to uphold their rights and that this will also be honoured by local PML-N leaders in a break with the party’s past record.

– dr patrick sookhdeo

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