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Pakistan Independence Day – not really

The founder of Pakistan, which today celebrates Independence Day, believed in the separation of mosque and state. He would not recognize his country now. Blasphemy laws silence religious expression. On a visit, I was often reminded to lower my voice 'lest the servants hear you.'

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This past spring I traveled to Pakistan as a physician on business, and also to see relatives. I spoke with Father Edward Joseph at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest Catholic diocese. As he showed me the damage to his cathedral, still unrepaired from a 1998 bombing by a Pakistani Muslim jihadist just after mass, I asked him how he guided his congregation in such a hostile climate. His reply was philosophic:

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“Just as Christ had his cross to bear, so, too, do we.” Not a trace of anger inflected his voice.

“So you mean the blasphemy laws are the ‘cross’ Pakistani Christians must bear?” I clarified.

“Yes,” he answered simply.

Next to him stood Davina, the young Christian doctor who had invited me to meet him. She added, “I never tender my opinion on any matter pertaining to religion, whether mine or anyone else’s. Even if I hear completely false things said about Christianity I don’t challenge them; it’s too dangerous.”

Earlier in my stay touring Karachi’s Ziauddin hospital, a community general government hospital, I spoke to Christian nurses and asked them about their working conditions. One matron explained her situation:

“I am in charge of all nursing assignments. My nurses are Christians and Muslim. I cannot afford to show any favoritism to Christian nurses, nor would I. I always ensure my work is of the highest standards. We Christians have to be better, to be beyond reproach, because we don’t want to invite any accusations of blasphemy. We must always do our job well, and better than others.”

Later, as I exited the hospital toward my waiting driver, ensuring she was well out of earshot of any colleagues, she rushed up to me, whispering she had applied for political asylum in the United States.

In Pakistan, religion, caste, and creed have become the prime business of the state, and this submerges all in an impenetrable silence.

Wherever I went, friends and relatives reminded me to lower my voice “lest the servants hear you,” to close the window “lest anyone hear your voice carried into the garden.” I was silenced in cars (“not in front of the driver”), silenced in airports (“not here in public”), and yet many Pakistanis, Christians, minority Muslims, and Pakistan’s fading Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) were desperate to talk with me.

Predictably the blasphemy laws lead to scores of arrests each year, and to subsequent violence.

Once convicted – often on hearsay – blasphemers are subject to the death penalty, though that sentence has yet to be carried out by the state. At least 16 people are on death row for blasphemy, and at least 20 are serving life sentences for the offense, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

If released on clemency, the accused are often lynched. Emboldened by a national climate of Islamist lawfare, Pakistani police rarely intervene, legitimizing generations of rising Islamists.

Today’s Islamist Pakistan is a failing state. Even so it exerts serious international influence. Within 20 years, it is expected to overtake Indonesia as the world’s most populous majority-Muslim state.

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