Christian prisoners denied visits from chaplain

In 2015, the ban was imposed on imams to prevent terrorism. In early 2016, the visits of all religious leaders were blocked. Christians discriminated behind bars and forced to carry out degrading jobs.

Islamabad (AsiaNews / Agencies) - In Pakistan, Christian prisoners are denied the consolation of faith offered by chaplains denounces The World Watch Monitor, granted permission to visit detainees in prisons across the country. The Rev. Maurice Shahbaz, director of the Prison Mission Society of Pakistan, says he has been trying to get consent for visits to prisoners by missionaries, evangelicals, and pastors for more than a year. This would allow Christians, already discriminated against by cell companions because of their faith, to have at least the consolation of faith.

Tariq Mehmood Khan Babar, deputy general inspector, says the ban on imam visits to detainees dates back to early 2015, in conjunction with the approval of the National Action Plan. This is the terrorism prevention plan launched by Islamabad following the Taliban massacre at the Peshawar military school in December 2014, which resulted in the deaths of 132 children. If at first the goal was to eradicate Islamic extremism that could be filtered from the outside into prisons, the end result was a general restriction on the freedom of worship of all prisoners.

Pastor Shahbaz reports that the discontinuation of visits was decreed in early 2016, when "former chief inspector Mian Farooq Nazir imposed a ban on religious leaders and teachers to access prisons and visit prisons" . This decision also has an effect on the duration of detention, since a 1978 law provides for a reduction in the penalty for passing school examinations, which are no longer allowed.

The situation of Christian prisoners in Pakistan, an Islamic majority country, is tenuous. Most of them reveal maltreatment because of their religion. They complain that the behavior of other prisoners and guards changes as soon as they discover they are Christian. From that moment on, they are treated like "untouchables" and forced to consider degrading tasks such as cleaning the bathrooms.

Not only, given the bureaucratic length of the judicial system, Christians are likely to remain behind bars for long periods of time, especially if they are accused of blasphemy, which is punished with the death penalty in Pakistan. Activists argue that these complaints are often made for personal revenge or to protect the interests of the accusers. Human rights defenders add that the most pivotal question is that courts take years to verify the veracity of the facts and, if verified, to drop charges. Meanwhile, prisoners are languishing in cells.

One of them, Yousuf Sodagar, a social worker, remembers: "I was wrongfully imprisoned in 1993. I asked the prison inspector to allow prisoners to pray together. At first we were given two moments of worship, then one. When I later met the superintendent of the prisons in the district of Kasur, he told me that Christians would have to pray in a decent way and with the music turned down."