Pakistani 'Harmony' Minister Optimistic About Equality

But Retired Lahore Prelate Sees Only 2 Options: Convert or Leave

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, NOV. 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The successor to Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti who was assassinated earlier this year for his opposition to the country's notorious blasphemy law, was in Rome last week on a low-profile visit.

Akram Masih Gill is a Catholic politician but not a member of the majority ruling party. He heads what is now known as the Ministry of National Harmony, after Bhatti's Ministry for Minority Affairs was devolved to local provinces after his death. 

During his short trip to the Vatican, Gill had a rare and impromptu private audience with Benedict XVI (the Holy Father only usually meets visiting heads of state) and Vatican officials. He also called in at the offices of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which coordinates parliamentary working groups on human dignity in Europe. 

Gill said he planned to help set up a working group on human dignity in Pakistan's parliament. Such a body, he added, would be "in line with Pakistan's constitution which, according to the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah [the founder of Pakistan], includes an emphasis on equal rights for all." 

Sanguine and self-assured, Gill was cautiously optimistic about the future for Christians and other minorities. He says his ministry, which aims to promote peaceful coexistence between Pakistan's 2.8 million Christians, other minorities, and its 167 million Muslims, was just one in a series of "bold steps" taken by successive Pakistani governments since 2002 to further interfaith relations. The new department has been "welcomed by all minorities as a way to help remove discrimination against non-Muslims," he said.

But as many Muslims become increasingly radicalized, he and his colleagues have plenty of challenges ahead. Gill is well aware of this, but a degree of optimism was necessary, not least to please his political masters back home. 

The fuller picture is less rosy: pressure on Pakistan Christians is increasing as Muslim radicalism rises. And according to a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, the country's public schools and madrasses are reinforcing biases against religious minorities. 

Despite appeals by the Holy Father and many others, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman allegedly guilty of violating the country's blasphemy law in 2009, is still incarcerated and may face execution (along with nearly a dozen others, some of whom are Muslims). Shahbaz Bhatti's killers remain at large, while the convicted murderer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab who was also killed for opposing the blasphemy law, was greeted in court with rose petals and garlands. His son has now also been kidnapped. 

And it's not only Christians who are affected. Last week three Hindu doctors were murdered by Muslim radicals in Shikarpur, near Karachi in south Pakistan. 

In an interview last week with the Canadian Catholic Register, Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, the retired archbishop of Lahore, said Christians "are very sad, very bitter" because of the discrimination, injustice and occasional violence they face.

In such an atmosphere of impunity, the archbishop said, many educated Pakistani Christians are leaving the country and those who remain are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. "In such a situation, minorities don't have much place. There's no tolerance for other religions," he explained. "Either you convert or you leave. This is the choice." 

Since his ordination 50 years ago, he said he had seen his country slide from corrupt oligarchy to military rule to mob rule. "Everything is a big mess there," he said, "economically, socially, religiously." 

The marginalization and discrimination of Christians reached absurd proportions this week when the country's Head of Telecommunications banned the name of "Jesus Christ" in cell phone text messages, though the rule was later retracted.

For Pakistani Christians in the more tribal areas of the country, daily life can be unbearable. Yousaf Khan, 40, gained refugee status in Italy in 2008 after fleeing his hometown near Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan. Now living in Rome and unable to return to his relatives for five years, he says Pakistani Christians live like "second class citizens" and face daily discrimination.

"We have to state our religion on our passports and this in itself is discrimination," he says. "If we apply for a government job or one in the private sector, we have to mention our confession on the form, and of course this also applies to visas." Khan explains that often Muslim staff in foreign embassies in Pakistan will grant Muslims visas while denying them to Christians, or force them to pay higher fees. "Even if you get an interview, the officials may refuse without giving a reason while a Muslim has no such trouble," he says. 

And he adds that even in Italy, the discrimination doesn't end. "I know of Pakistani Christians who have been refused visas by the Italian government but they've given them to Muslims. Some of them are taking benefits for everything and even have jobs working for NGOs like Caritas, Centro-Astalli," Khan says. "I haven't seen any Pakistani Christians doing the same, and even those Muslims who have these privileges aren't satisfied and are always complaining." 

He pointed out that Islam has become the second largest religion in Italy, with around 1.5 million Muslims and 130 mosques. 

Khan says life in his home town, which is close to Taliban areas, became "unbearable" after a spate of killings of Christians. He shows a newspaper cutting from 2008 reporting that 30 Christians were kidnapped from the town by the Taliban, many of whom were his friends, and only a few returned. Just before he left, the brother of his sister-in-law was murdered for no obvious motive apart from the fact that he was a Christian. "Nobody cared," he recalls. "We were left to collect the body." 

Khan's brother, meanwhile, has changed his job as a teacher three times because of discrimination -- an experience Khan knows well from the time when he was the only Christian employee working in a travel agency. "They give preference to Muslims, they don't pay an agreed salary, or grant holidays," he says. "Whenever I Skype my brother, I say: "You changed you job again?" When I ask why, he says his Muslim employers treated him badly."

But Khan is most concerned about his 15-year-old nephew. "He told me these days are very difficult for him," he says. "I asked him why, he said some teachers and even his classmates want him to convert to Islam. In the area of Peshawar this happens often."

Suicide bombers are often under the age of 20, and Muslim radicals scout for children with a view to indoctrinating them. Non-Muslims are especially targeted because, once converted to Islam, they are more easily radicalized. "That's why we are very afraid about my nephew," Khan says. "Every day, his father -- my brother -- takes him directly to and from school and won't let him take the bus. At his age, he's very vulnerable to kidnapping." 

But Khan says despite their trials, his middle class family is relatively fortunate. "We have a home and everything we need," he explains. "But if these are the problems facing us, imagine what happens to poor Christian families?" 

Many, he says, live in cramped accommodation with few basic amenities. "Muslim radicals come to them and offer them money and a better life if they convert," he says. "This happens so often, and in tribal areas it's worse." 

Asked whether the situation has deteriorated since he was a child, Khan says it never used to be as dangerous. 

"It wasn't so bad," he recalls. "I know, I grew up there, but it's worsened in the last 10 years."