09/30/2004, 00.00
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Christian minorities in Pakistan: little freedom and rising Islamic pressure

Parvez Musharraf meets Pope John Paul II

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – The law on blasphemy, forced conversions to Islam, democratization and education: Pakistani Christians are looking to the government for reform and to President Musharraf for his commitment on these thorny issues.

For Monsignor Lawrence Saldanha, Archbishop of Latore, the anti-blasphemy law – which foresees a death sentence for those who offend Islam – is "an anomaly of our legal system."  Many Christians have been killed on the basis of this norm.  And it was precisely in dissent of this law – which encourages fundamentalism and covers personal vendettas – that, in 1998, Monsignor John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad, took his life to protest against the case of Ayub Masih, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy.  There are still today 7 Christians detained in prison on charges of blasphemy.  In May, Aslam Mashim, a Christian from Lahore, was acquitted of such charges.  He had been imprisoned since 1998, but only recently did the prosecutor's main witness admit that police had made him give false testimony against Aslam.

Various attempts at "forced conversions" to Islam have been a source of alarm for Pakistani Christians: in May Javed Anjum, an 18-year-old Catholic, was abducted and tortured by Islamists that wanted to force him to convert to their religion.  Javed died as a result of beatings and is considered by Pakistani Catholics a martyr of the faith.  The Justice and Peace Commission of Lahor has spoken out against cases of forced conversions: "Young non-Muslim men have been forced to convert and circumcised against their will," reports Peter Jacob, Commission secretary.  Last November, 15-year-old Catholic Zeeshan Gill was forced to become Muslim by a group of schoolmates.  Islamic teachers threatened and beat him, forcing him to take lessons at the Jamia al Qasim al Aloom madras.  Zeeshan managed to escape from the Islamic school, but now lives in hiding for fear of retaliation.

A step in the right direction has been taken at the political level with the abolition of the "separate electoral system", which regulated voting rights according to religious affiliation.  Non-Muslim minorities could vote for a restricted number of candidates and only those who were of their same religion.  Instead, now, elections are held democratically.  Nevertheless, according to Human Right Watch (HRW), there are still weak points in Pakistan democracy.  In particular, the new Legal Framework Order, enacted by President Musharraf in 2002, has increased presidential powers, limited those of elected representatives and reinforced the political role of the military.  Furthermore, the new legal code provides that all members of the National Assembly and Senate be university graduates.  According to HRW, an elitist political class is the result of such a limitation, which excludes the bulk of Pakistani citizens, who lack a university education.  At the education level, Christian and moderate Muslim teachers have been speaking out against a fundamentalist islamization of textbooks in schools.  Furthermore, in a recent meeting, Pakistani bishops asked the new prime minister Aziz that private schools nationalized in 1972 be returned to the Church.

There are 7 Catholic dioceses in Pakistan: Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Islamabad – Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore, Multan e Quetta (Apostolic Prefecture).  

Pakistan has a population of 143 million, of which 96.1% are Muslim.  Christians account for 2.5% of the population, or about 3.8 million people.  Of these, 1,288,000 are Catholics. (LF)
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