Poor Christians Often Targets of Persecution in Pakistan

Poverty and ignorance are major factors that make breeding ground for intolerance against the Christian minority in Pakistan, according to Pakistani minister Paul Bhatti, an adviser to the Prime Minister for National Harmony in Pakistan.

“If we don’t succeed in eradicating poverty and ignorance in our country, then we will not be able to combat the phenomenon of religious intolerance,” Bhatti told Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano on Dec. 24.

The minister is also brother of the late Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated on March 2.

Bhatti recently met with a group of inmates, and spoke about the situation of Christians serving prison sentences on charges of blasphemy, the newspaper reported.

Bhatti said that Pakistan’s laws regarding blasphemy, rooted in Sharia, have served as a tool against Christians, who are being arrested based on an ambiguous law that forbids people from speaking against Islam or praising another religion. Accusations of blasphemy generally come from impoverished areas, the minister said, which suggests that poverty and ignorance are enemies of the Christian minority.

Bhatti's is yet another voice coming from Pakistan that confirms the danger of increasing persecution of Christians in the country.

Elements of Sharia law, such as blasphemy laws, are used as excuse for arresting Christians, Jonathan Racho, the Regional Manager for South Asia at the International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group, told The Christian Post recently.

In September, a Christian accused of blasphemy died in Pakistani jail, as authorities refused him proper treatment, according to ICC.

One of the most famous cases of persecution of Christians in Pakistan is the case of Asia Bibi, the first woman in that country to be sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. Bibi, still awaiting the resolution of her case, had been accused of blasphemy by fellow field workers. A mother of five, she was reportedly sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi denied the charges.

“Unfortunately, Asia Bibi is not the only person of the Christian faith serving a long sentence in Pakistan for having offended Islam,” Bhatti told L’Osservatore Romano. “These are the consequences of distorting the law against blasphemy but more than anything they are consequences of a widespread ignorance which plagues the weaker members of society: it is sufficient to recall the fact that all the people accused of blasphemy are extremely poor and therefore targets of those with the intention to promote hate and division between religious communities.”

A 2011 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) claims that “Pakistan continues to be responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”

The country is rife with attacks against minority religious communities, as well as members of the majority faith, and its laws penalizing blasphemy with the death penalty foster a climate of impunity, the agency reported. Blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the anti-Ahmadi laws, have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism, USCIRF report claims.

The agency claims it was instrumental in introducing the U.S. Government to the late Shahbaz Bhatti, who was an ardent defender of human rights reform within the Pakistani government.

“These connections provided Minister Bhatti with important leverage with his own government colleagues in Islamabad,” the report reads.  After his death, USCIRF worked with congressional offices to have a resolution introduced in his honor that pressed for improvements on these issues.

In its 2010 report, USCIRF said it deems elimination of Pakistan’s blasphemy law as a priority, and urges the U.S. government to pursue this objective and to support interfaith dialogue efforts undertaken by the Ministry of Minorities Affairs.

USCIRF labeled Pakistan as a country of “particular concern.”

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