Nazir S Bhatti is founder-president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, a Christian political party, and editor of the Pakistan Christian. He now lives in exile in New York. He is a leading spokesperson for minority rights in Pakistan, where he has p
Q: What has been the impact of Islamist movements, both moderate as well as militant, on the status of Christians and Christian Muslim relations in Pakistan?
A: Relations between different communities in Pakistan were fairly harmonious before the Objectives Resolution was adopted as a preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (1973), seeking to implement Islamic laws in the country within the next twenty years. The fourth amendment in the Constitution to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims community was the first step which led to a process of victimization of the various religious minorities in Pakistan. Christian-Muslim relations sharply deteriorated with the implementation of so-called Islamic laws by the Zia-ul Haq military government. The Jamaat-i-Islami played a key role behind this, and saw it as a means to garner power for itself. And so, today, we have a situation of a sort of religious apartheid in Pakistan.
Q: What efforts are being made in Pakistan by both the Christian Church as well as Muslim groups to dialogue with people of other faiths.
A: Churches and the Christian clergy in Pakistan have been under particular pressure since 1972, when the government nationalized the missionary schools, colleges and hospitals in the country. This led the Church to turn inwards and it stayed away from inter-faith dialogue in any meaningful sense. After the implementation of the blasphemy laws in 1985, the church leadership in Rome suggested to the local clergy to engage in inter-faith dialogue work in order to prevent Christians being victimized under these laws. Yet, the clergy did not respond to the situation as it should have.The Pakistan Christian Congress was the first party in Pakistan to organize public seminars at Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, to which it invited the leaders of Muslim groups, such as Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat-ul Ulama-i-Pakistan and the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh Jafaria to discuss the situation and promote inter-communal harmony. Recently, the Pakistan Awami Tehrik has taken a bold step by forming a Muslim-Christian Dialogue Commission, and has even invited Christian religious leaders to offer their prayers at a mosque in Lahore. However, after the recent attacks by militant groups on churches in Islamabad and Bahawalpur, in which several Christians were killed, it seems that the Church leadership has dampened its enthusiasm for dialogue. Extremist Muslim groups have now resorted to terrorism, and the churches feel that there is no point in trying to dialogue with them.
Q: How are the relations between Christians and other minority communities in Pakistan? Has the Pakistani Church attempted to dialogue with them as well?
A: The Sunni Muslims form the majority of the population of Pakistan. The major non-Sunni religious groups in the country include the Ahmadis, the Shias, the Ismailis, the Hindus and the Christians. After the fourth amendment to the Pakistani Constitution, many Ahmadis decided to leave Pakistan, and the community shifted their religious headquarters from Pakistan to West Africa and to Britain, rather than openly and actively struggle for their rights within Pakistan. The Shias, who are the largest community in Pakistan after the Sunnis, have increasingly become targets of Sunni militants. Many Shias have been killed in recent years and their holy places attacked. The Hindus in Pakistan live almost entirely in Sind, and have, by and large, remained relatively free from persecution, at least as compared to the Christians and the Ahmadis. Unfortunately, despite the worsening conditions of the minorities in Pakistan, there is no forum to unite them to jointly struggle for their rights. Since the problems of the religious minorities in Pakistan are closely linked to the oppression of minorities in other countries in South Asia, particularly India, I think that a united platform of minorities in South Asia as a whole is indispensable in order to promote dialogue and better understanding between different groups in Pakistan.