Pakistan's Laws Invite Attacks on Christians

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ANTHONY SPAETHAttacks on Christians in India have provoked expressions of concern from the U.S. State Department, several European ambassadors and from directly across India's border. Two weeks ago the lower house of Pakistan's National Assembly condemned such violence against a small minority. But the gesture rang hollow: Pakistan's own Christian population, tiny even compared with India's, is under a full-scale assault by thugs, greedy neighbors, the court system and laws that may have been designed to keep Christians in jeopardy. To be a Christian, says Joseph Francis, a legal aid worker in Lahore, is a crime in Pakistan.Not technically, but as Pakistan evolves into an ever-more Islamic state, the constitutional rights of minorities are being whittled away. Christians, numbering 2 million, or about 1.5% of the population, have proven the most defenseless--and their vulnerability only grows as more of them are hounded out of their homeland. Father Archie de Souza, vicar-general of the Karachi Archdiocese, says tens of thousands have migrated from the commercial capital alone. Aggressive Islamization changed the city's ethos, and the blasphemy law created misunderstandings, he says.The scourge of Pakistan's Christians is a 1986 blasphemy law that condemns to death anyone found guilty of speaking against the Koran or the Prophet. All too often, Christians are accused of blasphemy by someone trying to settle a personal dispute or drum them off valuable real estate. Cornelius Christopher Dutt, a school headmaster in rural Punjab state, was accused of blasphemy by a colleague who wanted his job in 1988. Dutt was cleared by an official investigation, but was forced to transfer due to continuous death threats.Dutt was actually lucky. Most Christians hauled into court on such charges end up in coffins. In the past eight years, five Christians were accused of blasphemy in Punjab: two died in custody, one was murdered during trial and two were killed by mobs before they could be arrested. Last April, Ayub Massih, a former mason, was accused of blasphemy for (among other things) speaking favorably of Salman Rushdie in the Punjab town of Arifwala. Muslim extremists tried, but failed, to murder him during the trial. Last April, Massih was found guilty of the crime, which was hardly surprising: in Pakistan's courts, the testimony of non-Muslims is given only 50% of the weight as that of the faithful. In a chilling protest, the Bishop of Faisalabad, John Joseph, put a gun to his head and killed himself in front of the courthouse. That sparked violence between Christians and Muslims in several cities and a call from Muslim clergymen for Massih to be hanged. To assuage public anger, the local authorities razed 70 houses occupied by Christian families.Ugly incidents abound, largely in Punjab. Last May, a short-circuit in a hospital storeroom resulted in a burned copy of the Koran, the Islamic holy book. Mobs attacked a nearby dormitory for Christian girls. Another burned Koran in the town of Khanewal prompted a mob to destroy 1,500 houses, damage 13 churches and kidnap several Christian girls. Christians, community leaders allege, can't get university places or government jobs. It is a religious apartheid, says Father Arnold Heredia, executive secretary of the Institution for Peace and Justice in Karachi. And things are only getting worse: around Christmas, a time bomb went off in the back pews of Karachi's St. Patrick's cathedral. No one was seriously hurt, and in today's Pakistan, that was something of a miracle.Reported by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi
India: Political considerations more than religious fervor have sparked a violent wave of attacks against Christians