Things are getting worse for Pakistani Christians. This week saw Jamaat ul Ahrar, an offshoot faction of the Pakistani Taliban, attack Christian families at an amusement park in Lahore. It is rivaled in scale by the September 2013 suicide bombing that killed 81 people at a Christian church in Peshawar. The two are among the most deadly terror attacks in Pakistani history.
Over the years, Pakistan has enabled a discriminatory and often-violent environment for Christians, fueled by weak law enforcement, low political will, growing animosity between Muslims and Christians, and biased legislation.
The constitution of the Government of Pakistan states that, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” But the state has a poor track record of protecting Christians, which constitute approximately 1.5 percent of the population.
It’s the blasphemy law, stupid.
The poor track record has partially to do with “Act XLV of 1860,” an aspect of the Pakistan Penal Code commonly referred to as the blasphemy law. The legislation was adopted during the tenure of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq and was inherited from the British era Indian penal code dating back to 1860. The law outlines punishments for “offences relating to religion” and was originally “intended to protect against religious intolerance.”
But the law has “become a tool of bigotry” against religious minorities and Muslims who advocate equal rights for religious minorities. And it now poses the single largest legal threat to the rights and living conditions of Pakistani Christians, as use of the law appears to be on the rise.
Recent applications of the blasphemy law highlight both its misuse and the potentially violent consequences associated with blasphemy allegations.
Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from Punjab province, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 after coworkers accused her of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi remains in prison despite the lack of evidence against her.
In August 2012, Pakistani police detained a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, after a Muslim cleric accused her of desecrating pages of the Quran. The police later determined that the cleric planted the burnt pages of the Quran so Masih might retrieve them. The case against Masih was eventually thrown out and she and her family received refuge to Canada.
In 2011, two prominent political figures, Punjab governor Salman Taseer and federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated because of their advocacy for changes to the blasphemy law and their overall support for religious minority rights.
The assassinations have created a culture of fear and dealt a serious blow to whatever political will existed among politicians to take greater action against militants, and to advocate on behalf of religious minorities more broadly.
Where the attack happened is important.
The blasphemy law isn’t the only enabler of violence against Christians in Pakistan.
While Jamaat ul Ahrar has its roots in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group allegedly has cells in Punjab, where some kind of private support network would be required to successfully conduct attacks like the one in Lahore this week.
Upticks in violence against Christians can be directly linked to the growing political and physical strength of virulent Sunni extremist groups in Punjab, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sihaba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
Historically focused on India, these groups have also increased their targeting of Christians, other religious minorities, and Pakistani Muslims who advocate on behalf of religious minorities.
The government of Pakistan has failed to counter the militant groups, allowing them to operate freely and without repercussions. For example, the LeJ is technically banned in Pakistan. But when its leader Malik Ishaq was imprisoned for hate speech against religious minorities, an anti-terror court in Pakistan later acquitted him in May 2014.
The lack of genuine action against such groups has strengthened perceptions that the state is either in sympathy with Sunni extremists, or incompetent and unable to provide basic security against them.
The Lahore attack will test these alleged sympathies. Jamaat ul Ahrar’s foray into Punjab could not have happened without local support. Did Punjabi militants facilitate some aspect of the attack? If so, will the connection ultimately force the government’s hand on an issue it has been trying to avoid: what to do about militants in Punjab?
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has taken military action against anti-state militants in the tribal areas, but it has refrained from cracking down on Punjab-based groups, as they constitute an important political base for his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. And because of their historical utility to the Kashmir conflict, Punjabi militants are still part of the Pakistani military’s national security paradigm when dealing with the Indian threat.
Sharif will have to do something about insecurity in Punjab, a province that is the country’s population center, economic lifeline, and a place of cultural and historical significance to Pakistani identity.
If Sharif is ready to do it right, then he – along with the military – will begin to dismantle the jihadist infrastructure that has grown too unwieldy for the state.
If he chooses to keep neglecting the problem (out of political necessity), we can expect to see more of what happened this week in Lahore.
Why the Lahore Attacks are a Major Threat to Pakistan – To the Point, NPR, March 26, 2016
Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities by Farahnaz Ispahani
The New Frontiers: Militancy and Radicalism in Punjab by Ayesha Siddiqa