In the interconnected, digital world of the 21st-century, an event thousands of miles away can send shockwaves felt in other parts of the world. The recent burning of a Quran in Sweden has had reverberations as far away as Pakistan and a special impact on the already defenceless Christian minority there.
This is not the first time Pakistani Christians have experienced societal prejudice, institutional discrimination, and sporadic violence. These issues are frequently exacerbated whenever similar events take place anywhere in the West. The fallout from the Quran's desecration in Sweden, however, has intensified these conflicts, resulting in an alarming rise in threats and the defilement of Christian symbols, particularly the Cross, symbolising Christianity.
Caught in the crossfire of this international incident, Pakistani Christians find themselves crying silently for peace, understanding, and respect for their religious symbols -- but it seems to be falling on deaf ears, both domestically and globally.
The desecration of the Holy Cross is not just an act of disrespect of their religious sentiments; it also poses a significant threat to their safety and security.
Disappointingly, the lack of an appropriate response from Pakistan's government to these incidents only further exacerbates the situation. The authorities seem unable to effectively guarantee the protection of religious minorities or their sacred symbols. This silence -- real or perceived -- often gets interpreted as tacit acceptance, potentially fuelling further acts of hostility.
This hostility took a horrifying turn when extremist groups threatened to attack churches and Christians, declaring that no Christians would stay safe in Pakistan. These groups even asked other jihadist groups to direct their attacks towards Christians and their places of worship, despite local Christians having no involvement in the incident, and even when they vociferously condemned the desecration of the Quran and cannot be held responsible in any way. Nonetheless, the threats of violence against churches and Christians represent an erroneous and detrimental "eye-for-an-eye" approach to revenge, targeting individuals who may have had nothing at all to do with the original alleged offense – thereby escalating tensions and deepening divisions. Indeed, it appears that being Christian instead of Muslim may be the real unforgivable offense in the present time. The discrimination and threats faced by Christians in Pakistan raise serious concerns about religious freedom and tolerance in the country.
What is worse is the lacklustre response from the Pakistani government towards these threats against its Christian minority. Critics argue that the government, led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, has failed to protect the Christian community, leaving them vulnerable and fearful. Despite the escalating situation and the visible threat to Christian churches and individuals, the government's efforts to ensure the safety of its Christian citizens appears largely absent.
The prime minister himself, instead of de-escalating the situation and calming the anger among Muslims, called for a nationwide protest and the observance of "Yume Taqdees" (Sanctity of the Quran).
Several Islamic organisations criticised this, arguing that because they have the right to protest, the prime minister should have instead used international diplomatic channels. Islamic groups appear to believe that protesting against the desecration of the Quran is their right. The prime minister, however, should engage in dialogue with the Swedish government.
The prime minister even failed to issue a statement in support of Christians who were helpfully condemning the desecration of the Holy Quran. Support from the prime minster could have been a timely and strategic move to protect the Christians from potentially horrifying attacks by extremists. However, he did not take this action, possibly due to concerns about potential backlash or else just a general reluctance to take a stand on the matter.
Christianity has been an integral part of Pakistan's multi-religious society since its inception The Christian leadership supported Muhammad Ali Jinnah's founding of Pakistan in 1947; he promised equal citizenship rights. Nevertheless, they often find themselves treated as second-class citizens, the target of discrimination, hostility, and violence.
This is not the first time that the Muslim League (N) -- the full name is Muslim League Nawaz, after Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- government has shown such carelessness and a lack of action towards threats against the Christian community; there are dozens of such examples. For instance, when Christians were attacked in Gojra in 2009, in the Joseph Colony of Lahore in 2013, and in the assault on the Youhanabad Christian community in 2015, the response of Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab at the time, was seen as inadequate. He was elected Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Youhanabad, but failed to visit his constituents. If such neglect had occurred from any MP in a Western country, he would have been forced to resign or at least been investigated by a parliamentary committee.
This pattern of inaction by the government creates an environment where religious minorities feel continually insecure and discriminated against.
The basis for such animosity stems from deep-rooted misconceptions, stereotypes, and extremist ideologies. Often, discriminatory laws, such as the contentious blasphemy law, have been misused against Christians, further worsening their situation. This law, which mandates harsh penalties, including the death penalty, for offences against religion -- or sometimes even just flimsy, baseless or non-existent accusations of offences -- have frequently been weaponized to target Christians and other religious minorities.
It is a predicament requires immediate attention. The government of Pakistan needs to uphold its commitment to religious freedom and safeguard all its citizens, as enshrined in its constitution and in line with international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. A comprehensive strategy that includes improved security measures for religious minorities and educational campaigns to foster tolerance and mutual respect is needed urgently.
The defenseless and vulnerable Pakistani Christians' silent cries for respect and security testify to the challenging situation that religious minorities often face in the wake of such incidents. Reminding the world of its shared responsibility to foster tolerance, respect, and peace is necessary. Recognizing and responding to these silent cries is a step forward in establishing a more understanding and inclusive global society.
In the fight against this religious hatred, civil society and religious leadership also have a vital obligation and play a role. Deep-seated biases against Christians in Pakistan can be challenged and changed by fostering discussion, religious tolerance, and understanding.
At this juncture, now is the time for the Pakistani government to reassess its approach toward religious minorities. The first step should be an immediate and unequivocal condemnation of violence and threats against religious minorities, including Christians. This condemnation should not just be a symbolic gesture but should be accompanied by stern legal action against the instigators of such violence. A fundamental component of any democratic country is guaranteeing the safety and security of all citizens, regardless of their religious views.
At the same time, it is necessary for the government to take deliberate steps to promote peace and religious harmony. This can be achieved through the incorporation of religious tolerance and coexistence in the curricula for school and public awareness campaigns. Furthermore, interfaith dialogues can serve as powerful platforms for fostering mutual respect and understanding between various religious groups in Pakistan.
The consequences of the government neglecting this matter are severe, including the marginalization of religious minorities, societal instability, and a tarnished international reputation.
Therefore, the time for action is now. The government seriously needs to break free from the cycle of indifference and actively embrace an environment of religious tolerance and mutual respect. The protection of religious minorities and the promotion of social and religious harmony should not be regarded as optional but as fundamental to the social stability and democratic ethos of Pakistan.
The silent cry of Pakistani Christians for respect and security is a testament to the challenging situation religious minorities often face in the wake of global incidents. The reverberations of an incident which happened thousands of miles away in Sweden should not disrupt their lives. Let this be a reminder of our shared responsibility to foster tolerance, respect, and peace in our global village. The path to lasting peace lies in acknowledging every cry, no matter how silent it may seem.
Nasir Saeed is Director of CLAAS-UK -- Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, an interdenominational organisation working for Christians who are being persecuted because of their faith in Pakistan.