Many news items reach the West highlighting the difficult situation of the Christians in Pakistan. What has your experience been? How do you live your faith? Do you ever feel threatened in your daily life?
Pakistan recognises freedom of religion, to practise one’s own faith, to pray and even to spread propaganda. This is written into the constitution. There are many Christian communities and many Hindi ones too. Hence at a certain level there is a great understanding of freedom. The churches are open and it is no problem if one goes to church or if Christian life is practised in different ways. Nonetheless the Christians must face discrimination and at times acts of violence.
In particular the violence is connected with the law against blasphemy which is generally used instrumentally against people that are not welcome. Once the blasphemy issue is raised, nobody is safe.
It is for this reason that there are problems in this sphere, but we can say that the Christians are as safe in Pakistan as all the other citizens are. Pakistan is not always a safe place, it is a violent country from various points of view. With regard to security I can say that the Christians find themselves in the same situation as the other citizens, just that they are discriminated against too.
How do they experience their condition as a minority? For example: do they have to attend schools reserved for them, do they live in special quarters, separated from the others…
The Christians often live together in small areas, a situation that is becoming somewhat frequent. I think that this process is due to them being marginalised in society to a certain extent.
As far as concerns the schools, the Christians are free to go to state schools. Those who can afford it prefer to send their children to the Christian schools, as the state ones are rather middling. But in the end the majority attends the state schools. The Christian schools are open to everyone, Christians and Muslims, just that they are run by the Church.
According to the law of Pakistan, what is the status of the Christians?
They are recognised as citizens, but are called ‘minority’ and as such have to bear the same restrictions that weigh on all the minorities in the country. For example: it is necessary to be a Muslim in order to become president or prime minister.
Officially the sharia is part of the constitution but in recent years the aspects of the sharia that hit all the minorities most of all (issues that were generally connected with the laws on testimony) have no longer been used against the minorities.
The government has guaranteed that minorities and women be treated in accordance with what is foreseen by Pakistan’s penal code and not by the sharia. In this way Christians are citizens like the others. The discrimination is on the increase though: it is difficult to find jobs, just to mention one of the many possible examples.
The sense of Pakistani identity has become stronger: a Pakistani must be Muslim and this must be written in his curriculum. This is a serious problem.
Even at an ‘official’ level there is no discrimination, and in fact the government tries to reassure citizens that there is no discrimination against anyone, but at a social level it exists oppressively, often with a religious origin.
According to you, what lies ahead for the Christians of Pakistan? Will the fight by the assassinated minister Bhatti against the law on blasphemy be continued?
For the moment there is no talk of the law on blasphemy, it is too dangerous. Many Muslims, Christians and Hindus try to change things but nobody dares touch the subject of blasphemy. I believe that there is a growing movement in favour of a change in Pakistan. There is a hope that things will change. The Christians, as part of the Community for Human Rights, can work with the community to foster change. I think that they can also work in this direction with the more open Muslims and the Muslim communities. Nevertheless the biggest problem weighing on the Christian community is that, owing to the economic hardships and discrimination, the educated Christians leave the country as soon as they can. And the community is becoming smaller and losing its leadership. This is a more serious problem. What weakens the Christian community of Pakistan is the loss of competent leadership. From a positive angle, I think that the Christian community can offer a lot to the country. For the very reason that it is on the fringe it can offer a different perspective to society. Today it brings, as it has always brought, an inestimable value to the Pakistani society. I’d like to be able to hope that we can see it grow.
In recent months a number of Arab countries have been through changes. Do you think that the wind of the so-called Arab spring may reach your country too?
The wind of the Arab spring has not touched Pakistan in the least. It is very far away and has nothing to do with us. This is my impression. But democracy has always been part of Pakistan, even if we have fought against many dictatorships. Pakistan has always been a plural society: plural in its religions and its ethnic groups and their languages. The context is completely different from the Arab one. There is a great desire in Pakistan: for Islam to define itself democratically. And this desire could be fuelled even more by what is happening in the Arab spring. Next to this however one must consider the presence of the violent extremist groups and what is happening in Afghanistan with the Talebanisation. This is a serious problem. Who knows what will happen in the end?