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Pakistan: ‘People talk religion, but they do not do religion’


In the first of a special series of reports, Anjum Anwar MBE, exChange and Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral, reports on a recent visit to Pakistan. Anjum is visiting a number of countries with Canon Chris Chivers, chair of Us Trustees, as research for a Us-funded study resource they are compiling for the Anglican Communion on inter religious living.


A member of the Christian clergy in Pakistan told me: ‘People die for religion, people fight for religion, but people do not live religion.’

I relate to this quote, because I use it all the time too, including in my work as exChange and Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral.

People talk religion, but they do not do religion. If they ‘did’ religion, they would probably not be killing each other. The lived experience is a far better way of educating the other about one’s faith – instead people are killing each other.

Pakistan dialogue
Inter faith dialogue is helping people live together.

I knew that going to Pakistan was not going to be easy. The Pakistan that I left in 1967 is not the same in 2014; today, Pakistan is almost a failed state.

The aim of our visit was to learn about the challenges faced by Christian communities.

We met Christians in Lahore; members of CLAAS, an organisation that supports persecuted Christians; and members of various inter faith groups, as well as lawyers, religious leaders, educationalists, young people, women and politicians.


Blasphemy

It would be impossible to talk about the Christian community in Pakistan and not mention Asia Bibi, a young Christian woman arrested in 2009 for blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010.

In October 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, an elected member of Pakistan’s National Assembly who was advocating for the release of Asia Bibi, was shot dead.

I had the honour of sharing a platform with him in London in 2010, and I knew that the subject matter had to be touched upon during my trip to Pakistan. But even using the word ‘blasphemy’ was a no-go area.

When we did finally discuss blasphemy, I was surprised to learn that over 80 per cent of people who suffer under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are Muslims themselves.

This became apparent when we visited the CLAAS offices and interviewed some of those who are being persecuted under the blasphemy law. Two particular cases were heart breaking and, in fact, left me feeling extremely angry.

One was of a young Christian woman whose husband is on death row. Her story is heartbreaking, her life shattered, her family broken and her future bleak. Her husband was in a business partnership with a Muslim friend, but the relationship soured over the years. The Muslim partner reported his Christian friend under the blasphemy law, and the man was arrested and put in prison. His young wife feels threatened and, after living with her in laws for a while, has returned to her parent’s home.

The other case is of a Muslim man whose wife was imprisoned four years ago on blasphemy charges. She has remained in prison because the man is too poor to pay for legal representation. The couple’s son accidentally dropped the Qur’an on the street. The woman went to a ‘religious leader’ [she was concerned to amend any inadvertent offence in the act], and the leader advised her to make a donation to a charity. However, due to mob mentality, the woman was accused of blasphemy.

This law is hurting many! Many of the blasphemy cases are not about religion per se, but about avenging arguments, professional jealousy, land disputes, and so on. Conversations can lead to quarrels which result in people being condemned under the blasphemy law. We must not be surprised by this in a country which has so much religious illiteracy, is governed by feudalism and is rife with corruption.

There was a time when Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths lived side by side in peace. I know this because, while I am a Muslim, my school teachers were Christians and my neighbour was a Christian but we respected each other.

What happened? Difficult questions need to be asked, not only of politicians but also of religious leaders. Pakistan has never had a democracy, as we know it in the West, because it would be impossible to implement democracy in a country which is ruled by the feudal lords.

Pakistan blasphemy laws were instituted by the British, but the laws became extremely troublesome in the 1980s with the country under Martial Law under General Zia Ul Haq – sadly the British government supported him.

So much has changed in the past 40 years. Pakistan has been fighting a battle on terrorism for too many years on behalf of the West, and this has impacted on Pakistan’s communities. After 9/11, the USA attacks on Afghanistan created havoc for Pakistan. Refugees fled to one of the most beautiful cities, Karachi, a port city, which is now devastated with drugs, gang warfare, a lack of resources, political in-fighting and unemployment – all of which has led to Pakistan being labelled as virtually a ‘failed state.’


Hope

However, there is hope: hope in the young people of Pakistan, whatever their faith.

It was enlightening to meet young Christian women who are training to become midwives and health workers. These women were ‘lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness’. They are working in difficult circumstances. Some travel miles to get to the training centre. Furthermore, as Christians in Pakistan, they face a lack of education opportunities, a high infant mortality rate (the driving force behind these women training as midwives), sexual harassment, forced conversion and, of course, religious discrimination in the workplace.

However, the women felt safe at the training centre. And their hope is that, by educating themselves and becoming a part of the community, they will be able to make a positive contribution that will also create understanding between faith communities.

Others are not so hopeful. A met a young couple who chose to sacrifice their love for the sake of their families’ security. I met a young Christian man who told me how he fell in love with a Muslim girl, his neighbour, and they wanted to get married. If the man had been a Muslim and the woman a Christian they may have got away with it. But, in the circumstances, although the parents of the couple came to terms with the situation, there was concern regarding how those outside the family might react. It only takes a word to ignite riots. So the couple decided to sacrifice their love. They are now still recovering from this break-up, which happened earlier this year. The couple walked away from their relationship knowing that, even if they married and moved away from the area, their families would probably still face difficulties.


Solutions

The solution to the challenges faced by the Christian community in Pakistan are multi-layered.

I was told that the three things bring all Pakistanis together: Independence Day, cricket matches against India, and the war with India. In these circumstances, it is strange that it does not matter what religion one belongs to.

Independence Day is on 14 August. On this day, schoolchildren of all faiths come together to celebrate by wearing green and white clothes, writing about Mohammad Ali Jinnah, sharing sweets and reading about their history.

However, I would like to see this day used to talk also about the contribution that Christians made towards the liberation of Pakistan – and about how Pakistan belongs to Christians as much as Muslims.

‘India’ is a very touchy subject, whether with reference to war with India or cricket, which seem to bring out the worst and the best. Religion is forgotten. With cricket, Christians and Muslims alike scream for their team.

Perhaps we can create situations where Muslims and Christian schools can meet peacefully through sports. One of the projects I am exploring is the twinning of a Christian and a Muslim school in Pakistan with a multi-faith school in UK, which I believe could create cohesion and understanding.


Love and hate

Love and hate are extreme emotions, yet they bind people like no other. When Pakistan is playing cricket against India, Pakistanis love to hate India during the game, and no doubt Indians feel the same about Pakistan.

However, these emotions do not teach us to appreciate our differences off the field. If that was the case, we would not be killing each other.

So how do we appreciate difference while working with our commonalities?

I would suggest that we first need to feel very safe and comfortable with our own values and beliefs before we are able to extend a hand of friendship to those who have different values and beliefs.

 


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