Minority Christians Seek Voice in Pakistan

In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Christians in Pakistan have long yearned for equality. For a short period, they placed hope in opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, but now after her death, they are searching for another leader that can lift them out of their second-class status.

"Muslims live there," said Julius Salik, a social worker and former federal minister, according to The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. "Good construction. Big houses. Big cars."

Salik was contrasting the open-air shacks in Christian slums with the clean rows of brick apartment buildings nearby.

In Pakistan, minority religions face harsh discrimination in nearly all aspects of life including education, finances and politics.

Christian students usually suffer from lower grade point average because they do not earn points through reciting the Koran like Muslim students. When they become an adult and enter the job market, they are denied opportunities when employers find out they are believers. In politics, Christian politicians are usually only allowed to represent other Christians and not Muslims.

Pakistan's 165 million population is 97 percent Muslim and less than 3 percent Christian. There are only an estimated 6,000 Christians in the country.

To battle against the inequality, politician-turned-social worker Salik has gone on hunger strikes, burned his clothes and furniture and even lived in a cage to improve human rights for all religious minorities in Pakistan, especially for Christians like himself.

Salik is the grandson of a Catholic priest and was elected in 1977 to Pakistan's General Assembly. He served for two decades in the General Assembly, but was only allowed to represent Christians in his district. The government has punished him for protesting by jailing him seven times.

"I want to tell the government that Christians are not afraid of them," he said to The L.A. Times. "We're willing to fight."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged the State Department to add Pakistan to its list of "countries of particular concern."

"It's one of the most serious problem spots for religious freedom in the entire world," said Felice Gaer, former chairwoman of the commission and director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

"Discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the legislative status of people who belong to minorities."

Arguably the most hated law cited by Christians is the blasphemy law, which is often manipulated to accuse innocent Christians and sentence them to jail with the motive of business profit or revenge. Human rights activists have noted that often Christians are sent to prison or sentenced to death without evidence under the blasphemy laws.

There are dozens of Christians currently in jail because of blasphemy laws that forbid anyone from defaming Islam.

Salik noted that Pakistan's treatment of religious minorities is ironic because it was formed by the British in 1947 for Muslims who faced oppression in India.

"But they have forgotten what it is like to be the underdog," he said. "So we must remind them."

In 1996, the then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had nominated Salik for a Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights efforts.

Bhutto, who was taught by a Catholic nun when she was young, had great respect for the Christian faith and sought to protect religious minorities. Her death was mourned by Christians in Pakistan, India and around the world.

On Tuesday, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) revealed her will to the public which named her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as her political heir, according to Agence France-Presse. Her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, who is currently studying at Oxford University in England, has also expressed his intention to follow his mother into politics.