Pakistan's Christians: the precarious position of a minority community

A spokesman for the Muslim group that claimed to carry out the Easter attack said Christians were targeted deliberately. Four questions about the community.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Pakistani nuns hold candles during a vigil for victims of Sunday's deadly suicide bombing on Monday in Lahore.

The suicide bombing Sunday in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore, along with published comments attributed to the militant Muslim group that claimed to carry it out, have served to grimly underscore the precarious position of Pakistan's Christians.

At least 70 people were killed in the Easter attack, mostly women and children.

Ahsanullah Ahsan, spokesman for Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a breakaway Taliban faction in Pakistan, said the attack specifically targeted Christians.

“It’s our message to the government that we will carry out such attacks again until sharia [Islamic law] is imposed in the country,” he told the Washington Post in a phone interview.

The following is a primer on Pakistan's minority Christian community:

How many Christians live in Pakistan?

Pakistan is a majority-Muslim country of 190 million people. Christians are the second-largest minority group after Hindus. They make up about 1.6 percent of the total population – or more than 2 million people – but skeptics argue that the government deliberately undercounts their numbers. Some say Christians make up closer to 5 percent of the population.

Christians are concentrated in the southern metropolis of Karachi and in countless villages and cities in the Punjab heartland, including Lahore and Faisalabad. There are also sizable Christian communities in the deeply conservative northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

What’s their history in the country?

Roman Catholic missionaries first arrived in South Asia from Europe in the late 1600s. Most Christians in Pakistan are the descendants of low-caste Hindus who had converted during the years of British rule, in part to escape the caste system. Many provided labor in garrison towns.

Yet even today the majority of Christians remain in the most marginalized sector of society, reports the BBC. While some have risen to become government officials or run businesses, the poorest work the country’s worst jobs, as toilet cleaners and street sweepers. Entire villages in parts of Punjab are made up of Christian laborers and farmhands.

Has the intolerance always been this high?

No. Before partition with India in 1947, Pakistan was a more multi-ethnic place. Many Christians even supported the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan. Yet the mass migration of people after 1947 and the split with Bangladesh in 1971 led many non-Muslims to leave the country. Minorities made up 15 percent of the population before partition; now they fall short of 4 percent.

Pakistan’s increasingly homogeneous society has allowed Islamic fundamentalists to gain influence and spread intolerance. The Washington Post’s Pamela Constable reports that Christian-Muslim relations did not begin to fray until the 1980s and 90s, “when the Afghan war against the Soviet Union; the rule of a religiously fanatical military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq; and the importation of fundamentalist Sunni teachings from the Middle East began to challenge Pakistan’s tolerant traditions.”

The terrorist attacks on 9/11, which many Pakistani Muslims saw as a foreign plot to defame their faith, further enflamed tensions.

Why are Christians being attacked?

Many of the attacks on Christians in Pakistan are related to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Accusations of blasphemy have led to mob violence against Christians, while militant Islamists have also targeted the community.

The attack on Sunday occurred as large demonstrations were held in other parts of the country to protest the execution in February of the man who murdered a secular politician five years ago. The murdered politician, Salman Taseer, was an outspoken critic of  Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws and campaigned against them. 

Islamists throughout Pakistan have also spoken out against what they say is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's liberal and pro-Western stance. Earlier this month, Mr. Sharif officially recognized holidays celebrated by the country's minority religions, the Hindu festival of Holi and the Christian holiday of Easter, reports The Associated Press.

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