The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is severe and complex. Daily, Pakistani Christians are treated as second-class citizens simply due to their religious identity. Christians also face many other forms of abuse, including false blasphemy accusations, physical assaults, attacks on places of worship, abductions, and forced conversions to Islam.
Due to this discrimination and abuse, Pakistan is recognized as one of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians. Open Doors USA ranked Pakistan the world’s fifth-worst persecutor of Christians in its 2020 World Watch List. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has also designated Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern” in part due to the persecution faced by the country’s Christian community.
In a series of articles entitled “Pakistan’s Layers of Persecution,” International Christian Concern (ICC) will explore the many facets of Christian persecution in Pakistan. These articles will look into issues like Pakistan’s discriminatory laws, hate speech against Christians, the country’s biased education system, and Christian untouchability.
To start, ICC explored Pakistan’s founding and the country’s constitution, which exposes many contradictions that provide the foundation for Christians’ second-class status.
“You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste, or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
These famous words, which speak of religious freedom, were spoken by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, widely considered the founder of Pakistan, in his first speech before the constitutional assembly on August 11, 1947; just three days before Pakistan was officially founded.
While the August 11 speech is still celebrated today, Jinnah’s words remain a mostly unfulfilled promise to Pakistan’s religious minorities. In fact, for many minorities, the fulfillment of this promise seems further and further away every year.
Like Jinnah’s August 11 speech, the Constitution of Pakistan promises religious freedom and equality before the law to all its citizens, regardless of religious identity.
According to Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan, “Every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” Article 25 states, “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.”
However, like Jinnah’s August 11 speech, these promises have also gone unrealized for Pakistan’s religious minorities. In fact, these promises are contradicted in the constitution itself.
Article 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan states, “Islam shall be the state religion of Pakistan.” Establishing Islam as the religion of the state is the genesis of many constitutional provisions that ultimately relegate Christians to second-class status.
For example, Article 41(2) states that “A person shall not be qualified for election as President unless he is a Muslim.” This is reinforced by Article 91 (3), which says, “After the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be Prime Minister.”
As these two articles make clear, religious minorities, including Christians, are barred from holding the highest political offices in Pakistan. This discriminatory ideology, unfortunately, has trickled down into much of Pakistan’s society. There is a widely held belief that Christians, as religious minorities, should not hold positions of leadership over Muslims in Pakistan.
“International law defines discrimination as any act involving any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference between individuals or a group of people,” Peter Jacob, Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice, explained to ICC. “On this [definition], the Constitution of Pakistan maintains direct and explicit discrimination on the basis of religion on ten counts and carries implicit religious discrimination in another 12.”
“As a whole, the constitution falls short of the standards of a modern constitution,” Jacob continued. “It fails to provide a framework with unqualified resolve for the equality of all human beings and a democratic political order.”
Also, the Constitution of Pakistan requires all secular laws to be brought into conformity with Islamic jurisprudence. Article 227(1) states, “All existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such injunctions.”
This conformity, again, has helped cement the second-class status of Christians. For example, the conformity requirement for secular laws is one reason why Pakistan’s courts continue to fail to protect Christian minors that have been abducted and forcefully married by Muslim men.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, a secular law, criminalizes child marriages. However, relying on an interpretation of Islamic tradition which allows marriage to underage girls as long as they have had their first menstrual cycle, both the Sindh High Court and the High Court in Lahore have approved marriages where Christian minors have been abducted and forcefully married by Muslim men.
Interestingly, the Constitution of Pakistan includes a section that explicitly calls for the protection of religious minorities. However, the rights of religious minorities are called into questions within this constitutional provision itself.
Article 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan states, “The State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities.” According to Jacob, the qualifier “legitimate” is an issue.
“This places the enforcement of the rights of minorities behind a precondition of legitimacy,” Jacob explained. “The term itself is not defined. This creates a vacuum of meeting and gives the impression that the rights of minorities can be dispensed with. The impact is no different than what appears to be the intention of the law, to relegate the status of religious minorities to that of second-class citizens.”
For Pakistan’s Christians, the Constitution of Pakistan provides little protection and a system in which inequality is the status quo. However, the persecution of Pakistani Christians is not wholly explained just by the country’s constitution.
As stated at the beginning of this article, Christian persecution in Pakistan is complex and multi-faceted. Caste history, Pakistan’s education system, discriminatory laws, and many other issues all play their part in why Pakistan is one of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians today.