Earlier this week, the lower house of the Parliament in Pakistan elected Shahid Abbasi as Prime Minister. Pakistan is a mostly democratic, parliamentary republic, but Abbasi came to power because the Supreme Court of Pakistan recently decreed that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ineligible to serve his third term as Prime Minister because of corruption. This was certainly an eventful week for the south Asian nation.
Abbasi is a loyal supporter of Sharif, and most observers assume he will continue Sharif’s policies and will eventually step aside so Sharif’s brother can take a seat in Parliament and become Prime MInister after run-off elections later this year. Abbasi belongs to Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, and previous served in Sharif’s cabinet. He was educated in the United States—at UCLA—and is noted for being one of the leading figures in Pakistan’s aviation industry.
For Christians in Pakistan, many of whom experience persecution—both explicit and implicit—a new Prime Minister is an anxious development, especially since Sharif was known for some cautious moderation in official religious policy in Pakistan. In March 2017, he even gave a speech in which he said that “Islam gives people freedom to choose their religion,” and appeared to implicitly support a bill that makes forced conversions illegal that was controversial at the time. Christians who were encouraged by those developments likely wonder if those changes are at an end.
So will Abbasi continue Sharif’s more moderate approach? Only time will tell. Some Christians are worried about an uptick in persecution in a country long known for persecution of religious minorities. But Abbasi has said he is “Nawaz Sharif’s man, and the people’s prime minister is Nawaz Sharif,” so perhaps there is some hope for relief for Pakistani Christians.
Regardless of who leads the government of Pakistan, the unjust blasphemy laws remain on the books—and those laws were repeatedly supported and upheld by former Prime Minister Sharif, which suggests Abbasi will continue those politics. Additionally, non-Muslims are legally barred from holding the highest public offices in Pakistan, along with positions on the Federal Shariat Court, which can overrule any civic authority in Pakistan.
Christians have also been victims of regular religious persecution and terrorist attacks, including a bombing in 2016 that killed more than 70 people, along with forced conversions, restrictions in job options, death sentences and other atrocities. Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population of Pakistan, which is around 96 percent Muslim. The state religion is Islam, and 62 percent of Pakistanis support the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam.
So how will the new government treat Christians in Pakistan? It remains to be seen. If, as seems likely, the policies of former Prime Minister Sharif continue, the public freedoms for Christians will remain a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is verbal and public condemnation of forced conversions and religious persecution. But on the other, blasphemy laws remain entrenched in the country’s constitution, and popular sentiment seems strongly opposed to any religion besides Islam.
Pray for the Christians in Pakistan as they adjust to a new Prime Minister. Pray for Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi, that he will govern fairly and well for all Pakistanis, and will protect the lives and freedom to worship of the Christian community in Pakistan. And pray for the country and people of Pakistan, that they would see Jesus in action in the church in Pakistan and would come to embrace the Christian community—and the God that community serves.