Over eight church leaders have been arrested since city authorities in a town in the Punjab province of Pakistan passed regulation banning Sunday worship in house churches, a humanitarian aid organization reported.
According to the London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association, at least eight pastors have been arrested in the last year since the administrators in the city of Bahawalpur ordered that Christians can only hold their Sunday prayers in church buildings and laid out strict guidelines.
The rules were created after local Muslims complained about being disturbed by house church prayers. It is believed that about 1,000 Christian families live in the city.
The new rules cracking down on house church prayer, which were first reported last October, also prevent churches from being established 200 meters from any mosque and 100 meters away from a Muslim residential area. Additionally, churches are not allowed to use a loudspeaker during their Sunday services.
Since the rule has been enacted, the church leaders that have been detained and released on bail are Rev. Arslan-ul-Haq, Rev. Munir Masih (Gospel of Salvation), Rev. Arshd Baghicha (Kings Jesus Pentecostal Church), Rev. Javad Veru (Pentecostal church), Rev. Mubashir Maqsood (United Presbysterian Church Pakistan), Rev. Patress Nawab Gill, Rev. Shoukat Masih and Rev. Arshad Rehmat (Gospel of Salvation).
The church leaders launched a petition last Sunday, calling on Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Interior Minister of Pakistan Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to take immediate action to protect their religious right to worship, saying that the city's rules are contradictory to the "guarantees provided to religious minorities in constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan."
"Draconian measures such as these are not new," BPCA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry explained in a statement. "Churches in Karachi and Badhami Bagh in Pakistan have both previously had to sign contracts, declaring they will not hold services at times that are offensive to Muslims, that they will divide seating for women and men and will not speak the name of Christ in the streets or allow music to permeate the environment and negatively impact on the sensitivities of Muslims."
Chowdhry said that the ordinance passed in Bahawalpur "goes further than these previous coerced local contracts."
"In fact, this authoritative control by Islamic extremists within a district authority illustrates a significant regression in policy within a government structure," Chowdhry stated. "The ordinance breaches Article 18 of the Human Rights Convention, which Pakistan has ratified, and existing equality and freedom of faith provisions within the constitution of Pakistan."
"World leaders should be taking note of this decision and act to prevent a further decline in the quality of life for Christians in Pakistan, which has reached its nadir."
A source told The Pakistan Christian Post that Bahawalpur's rule against house churches was enacted after the local government was pressured by a banned extremist group that has a heavy presence in the city.
Pakistan ranks as the fourth worst nation in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List.