Pakistani Christians Watchful as Sharif Returns to Power
On June 5th the remarkable comeback of Sharif, who was ousted by a military coup in 1999 and spent seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, culminated in his taking office as prime minister, Pakistan’s top executive position, for a third time.
Though Pakistani Christians have historically supported more liberal parties, there is evidence significant numbers backed the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) this time. Unlike PMLN campaigns of the 1990s that carried Islamic overtones, the 2013 campaign focused on Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortages, relations with India and the United States, and domestic Taliban-sponsored terrorism. During the campaign, Sharif promised that his party would give equal rights to minorities, including Christians.
“The situation of Christians may be different this time because [the] Sharif brothers have promised to bring positive changes for minorities,” said Irfan Barkat, a Christian activist who once worked with the National Commission of Justice and Peace. Barkat said Christian voters may have been further encouraged by the Punjab government’s eventual response to a March riot in the Joseph Colony sector of Lahore. Thousands of Muslims, enraged by allegations that a Christian man had insulted the Prophet Mohammed, torched about 150 Christian homes, forcing hundreds of families to flee, and beating some of those who remained. The Pakistan Supreme Court accused Lahore police of standing by during the violence and demanded an investigation. After finding the Punjab government’s initial response lacking, the government extended a belated offer to help victims rebuild their homes.
“The way they rehabilitated Christian families of Joseph Colony, which was attacked by Muslim protesters in March this year, have changed Christians’ view about Mr. Sharif’s party,” Barkat said. The PMLN even took the unusual step of thanking minority voters for their support.
“There is going to be unbelievable positive change for the Christians,” was the positive prognosis of Pastor Saleem Inayat, founder and chairman of Samuel Inayat Ministries; some Christians, however, remain wary. “The majority of Christians are not optimistic about Sharif’s forthcoming government because of their religious approach and close linkages with fundamentalist groups,” said Nadeem Anthony, a Christian lawyer and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Addressing PMLN party members on May 27, Sharif said his first option in dealing with domestic terrorism was talking with the Taliban. However, during the campaign season, Taliban forces attacked supporters of three more-liberal parties, and openly claimed responsibility for most of the resulting 1,300 fatalities. The PMLN failed to present strong condemnation of the attacks.
In addition, Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are widely criticized as being abused by Pakistani Muslims who want to settle scores and extort property. Anthony said Sharif’s election is unlikely to provide Christians much hope that the government will curb abuse of the laws. “The Sharif brothers have also been very strict on blasphemy laws, which is one of the major causes of Christians’ troubles in Pakistan, especially in the Punjab province,” he said.
The Punjab province, home to more than half of Pakistan’s population and 80 percent of its Christians, has been marked by multiple episodes of anti-Christian violence over the past 15 years. Just last month in southern Punjab, about 250 Christian families from a Christian village called Chak 31, fled their homes when Muslims from a neighboring town marched on Chak 31, enraged by rumors that some Christians has insulted Islam.
Naveed Ghafoor, whose brother was falsely charged with blasphemy in 2009, doesn’t expect Sharif to change his position now. “If Mr. Nawaz Sharif wanted some kind of changes in blasphemy law, and action against Islamic extremists, he would have made some moves when he was in power [the] last two times,” Ghafoor said. “So it does not matter who comes to empowerment, because the situation of Christians [is] getting [more] difficult day by day.”
Nevertheless, some Christians are willing to give Sharif and the PMLN another opportunity to confront extremism. “The religious-fanatics are responsible for the tense situation of Christians in Pakistan, and this is nothing to do with the government,” said Adgar Pace, director of Pakistan Christian Recording Ministries. “This is big challenge, if Mr. Nawaz Sharif does not take any practical step in favor of Christians to protect them from extremists, the situation could be worse. I personally like Nawaz Sharif, as a good leader with his foreign links that could lead [to a] favorable situation for the Christians.”
Father, we give thanks that the fate of Christians in Pakistan is in Your hands. While Sharif’s true motives and plans are unknown at this time, we take heart that You are sovereign over Your people and over the earthly rulers of that nation. We pray for Your peace and wisdom to pervade the hearts of the Christians in Pakistan and for Your protection over them. Strengthen their faith to remain true to their Lord and Savior in the midst of persecution. We pray for an end to the blasphemy laws and their use to gain property and solve disputes unfairly against Your people. And we pray that the light of Your gospel will dispel the darkness of unbelief in Pakistan, even as we pray for that in our own nation. In the name of Jesus the true light, Amen.
Source: World Watch Monitor