Despite an alleged recent push by the Pakistani government to promote greater social and political freedoms and limit religiously-motivated violence and hate speech, both Pakistan-based and international human rights groups have continued to call on the majority-Muslim country to institute better protections for its religious minority groups: Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims.
All of these groups face intense threat of physical persecution as well as widespread stigmatisation on the basis of their faith, which limits them from enjoying the full spectrum of social interaction and individual freedom to which they have a right.
In Pakistan, the Christian community in particular has experienced heightened discrimination and oppression. Subject to land grabs, kidnappings, forced conversions, and attacks on places of worship, practicing Christians in Pakistan face a grim reality.
In a report on Religious Minorities in Pakistan commissioned by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Alberto Cirio, Fulvio Martusciello, Ryszard Czarnecki, Indrek Tarand, and Heinz K Becker, special attention was paid to the effect of broad marginalisation and oppression on Pakistani Christians, particularly in the area of employment. That report found that, when Pakistani Christians are able to find employment, they are relegated to some of the most low-skilled jobs in the entire country, such as cleaning and garbage pickup.
It is not that cleaning and garbage collection are professions unworthy of respect—both require hard work and dedication just as any other position of employment. The issue is that Pakistan’s men and women who publicly identify as Christian have little if any chance to seek out and hold an employment position outside of these and other similar roles. Perpetually forcing Pakistan’s Christian women and men into these menial roles reinforces negative stereotypes about their intellectual capabilities, their innovation, and their work ethic. Demoted to these professions irrespective of their skills, talents, or passions, this form of economic and social marginalisation ensures that religious persecution within Pakistan remains systematic. Systematic oppression mars the opportunities that future generations will have once they enter the workforce, creating an endless cycle of in-opportunity.
At even greater issue is the impact of the government’s blasphemy laws on all religious minorities, including Christians. The history of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan dates all the way back to the colonial era, when the land that is now Pakistan was still part of British India. Initially, these laws were intended to limit religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims. However, in the three to four decades after Pakistan gained independence and cultivated more military power—especially in the late 1970s to late 1980s—there were additional laws drawn up to insulate and protect Islam, as it was the majority religion within the country. The Pakistan is an Islamic republic. This in itself is neither inherently dangerous nor harmful. Yet, the Pakistani penal code does stipulate punishment for anyone who desecrates the Quran, defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad, or defiles the names of any family members or companions of the Prophet Muhammad as well as any of the caliphs (the chief civil and religious leaders for practicing Muslims, believed to be successors of the Prophet Muhammad).
Because of this, many international human rights organisations have denounced the government time and again, and called for an abolition of the blasphemy laws. Amnesty International, a prominent global human rights movement, has referred to the laws as “incompatible with international human rights law.” Amnesty and other international organisations have claimed that those accused of violating the blasphemy laws do not often receive fair trials: “vaguely formulated laws, the low standard of evidence required for conviction, and the manner in which allegations are often uncritically accepted by the police, the prosecuting authorities, and even trial court judges” subjects those accused to widespread threat and intimidation from both the public and officials.
One of the most noteworthy examples in which the blasphemy law was invoked was the case of Asia Bibi. As the MEPs mention in their report, Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death for violating the blasphemy laws. Back in 2009, Asia had an argument with some Muslim women where she worked as a farm labourer. During the argument, she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She was imprisoned for her offence and went on to spend over eight years in solitary confinement. Following a massive and incredibly publicised movement to free her, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia of her crimes in 2018, citing a lack of evidence for prosecution.
Immediately following the Supreme Court’s announcement, protests erupted. Many people who supported the blasphemy laws were angered at the outcome of the case and spent the next three days wreaking havoc on their local communities, including police offices and schools. Though the religious fanatics’ protests—and the blasphemy laws in general—were denounced by countless practicing Muslims, the uproar did reveal a general negative disposition toward religious freedom protections for a significant portion of the public.
The Pakistani state is obviously aware of these abuses of human rights and religious freedom. As a country who benefits from the European Union’s GSP+ programme—the initiative aimed at providing developing and/or vulnerable countries with preferable trade schemes intended to secure its “integration into the world economy”—Pakistan is required to ratify and implement 27 separate international conventions that lay out specific protections for human and labour rights, the environment, and government action.
Pakistan has of course refuted any allegations of human rights violations. In order to continue benefiting from the GSP trade preferences, Pakistan must wholly acknowledge and commit to holistically responding to these allegations. The Pakistani government must ensure cross-spectrum protections for all people, irrespective of religious tradition. Furthermore, it is completely unacceptable for the EU to continue to dole out massive financial incentives to the Pakistani government while hundreds of thousands of Pakistani citizens—Christians and otherwise—continue to face the threat of abuse, oppression, and even death because of their fundamental human right to practice the religion they choose.
As is clearly obvious to the European Parliament because of its MEP report, the EU cannot claim to promote universal human rights from its insulated perch in Brussels while the very foreign nations it claims to fight for suffer abroad.