Let us dare to speak for persecuted Christians

(AP)
Pakistani women grieve over the coffins of their relatives, who were killed in a suicide attack on a church, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 22 September 2013.

On October 10 the European Parliament passed three separate resolutions, one of them condemning violence and persecution against Christians in Syria, Pakistan and Iran. MEPs expressed concern for Christians in Syria, condemning the attacks on the historically Christian town of Maaloula by militants, and on All Saints' church in Pakistan, where the Bishop of Peshawar, the Right Reverend Humphrey Peter, put the number of Christians killed at 113.

The MEPs also said that Pakistan's blasphemy laws need to be overhauled and I am glad that this point has been picked up by them. The blasphemy laws currently carry a mandatory death penalty and are being used as an excuse to attack Christian churches, burn their settlements, imprison and even kill them.

Recently the Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan suggested the death penalty should be given to anyone who falsely accuses another of blasphemy, calling it "tantamount to blasphemy" itself. It was a brief glimmer of hope and because of heavy criticism from established members of the council, its chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani went on to make the predictable announcement on September 24 that the existing blasphemy law should not be amended. He added that the Pakistan Penal Code already had sections which deal with sentences for those who misuse any law of the land.

I would disagree with him there, as whatever wording may be in the written law to that effect is clearly not doing its job where blasphemy is concerned and very little is actually done to those who are misusing specifically this law. Giving the stubborn status quo, I believe nothing short of amendment is going to stop the blasphemy laws from being misused.

Still, the fact that MEPs have called for this is good news for the voiceless Christians who are being persecuted in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan because of their religion. Although their own government has no respect for their human rights and plays deaf to their cries, the world can hear them and it is responding.

The MEPs are right to demand that the Pakistani, Syrian and Iraqi governments provide protection for them and their churches because persecution is intensifying everywhere. Unfortunately, reports suggest that every five minutes a Christian is being killed because of their faith. According to Massimo Introvigne, a representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, some 105,000 Christians are being killed every year.

Sadly the majority of Christian persecution is taking place in Islamic countries. Muslims from these countries who have moved to the west, where Christians are in the majority, have appreciated enjoying equal rights and full religious freedom despite being a minority faith group. And it seems this is prompting them to condemn heinous attacks like the Peshawar church attack. There may even be some concern about a possible backlash against them, being as they are de facto representatives of Pakistan in the countries where they have settled.

I was also heartened by ex-defence minister Liam Fox's recent criticism of the Pakistani government. Speaking during the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester, he raised the point that countries like Pakistan receive millions of pounds from the British taxpayer every year while the minority Christian communities in these countries are being brutalised.

He added that if foreign governments failed to uphold British values like religious tolerance, the UK should not continue to give them handouts, a point I agree with. "We should use our leverage to ensure that those ethics of generous British citizens, who provide the money through their donations and through their taxes, are reflected in those countries whom we assist," he said. "We should make clear that religious tolerance and equal rights are an essential part of our culture which we insist in being replicated in the recipient nations and if they are not, then our aid policy should be re-evaluated."

I think it's worth quoting what he said further: "I look at countries like Pakistan, where a huge amount of our aid goes to and I view a country where religious tolerance is becoming less and less. I see Christian minorities being persecuted and I wonder why we are not using the leverage of our aid to say 'we actually expect you to show greater religious tolerance to many of these groups'. I just think that if you look at countries which do tolerate religious minorities they tend to be open and creative societies and repressive nations tend to go in ever-decreasing circles and become less prosperous and their societies less stable."

This is a noteworthy statement and uncomfortable news for Pakistan's new government that is already struggling with the economy, energy and Islamic terrorism, while remaining dependent on foreign aid and holding a lot of its hope for survival in Europe and America.

By the end of the year, the European Parliament is going to grant GSP Plus status to Pakistan on its Generalised Scheme of Preferences, which makes it possible for exporters in developing countries to pay lower duties on their exports to the EU. The Pakistani government will be aware that this status could be thrown into question if Christians living in the West put pressure on their governments and MEPs to give it only if Pakistan meets certain conditions, namely improving its human rights situation.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is due to meet US President Barack Obama in the next few days to talk about important issues like energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USICRF) has already recommended including Pakistan in its list of Countries of Particular
Concern. The USICRF has expressed its concern over the ongoing persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan and strongly supports the 71 guidelines recently adopted by the EU in regard to the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.

It is a difficult situation for Pakistan. It has to pay heed to international concerns and address the issues being raised by them more vigorously. Policies relating to religious minorities will have to change and if they are trying to close their eyes to this fact, then now is a good time to understand that the world is paying close attention to the country and what is going on there. If they don't have any sympathy for
their own religious minorities this is not going to change the fact that the rest of the world does.

Condemnation of the ill-treatment of minorities is not enough. Something practical must be done and one thing the Pakistani government can most definitely do is adopt legislation like the Racial and
Religious Hatred Act that exists in the UK. Pakistan has to protect its minorities and grant them equal rights in realty, not just in the books. The world has seen for many years that the practice is so often different from what is preached in Pakistan.

The recent attack on All Saints church Peshawar has been condemned by world leaders, but there are too many Christians who are still silent. They have to break this silence without thinking about the consequences, their reputation, or whether someone else doesn't want to hear their message. They must use their voices to stand with their brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in the world for following the Jesus. This is the time when we have to prove that we are one body in Christ.

In the UK where I am based, I am disappointed not to have seen any statement from bodies like Christians in Parliament, headed by Gary Streeter MP, and Christian groups within the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties. Nor have I seen any early day motion on the suicide bombing on All Saints church, Peshawar, the deadliest attack on Christians in my country. If ever there was an opportunity to say something in Parliament, this was it.

The Christian leadership has to become united and become a voice for their brothers and sisters wherever they are being persecuted because what is happening to one part of the body is happening to all of it and you can be sure that wherever Christians are being persecuted, radical ideology in some form is taking root and that should be a concern for everyone, even non-Christians.

As Fox has said, aid to Pakistan has to be reassessed as innocent blood is being shed because of the carelessness and inaction of the Pakistani government. Pakistan is receiving a large chunk of its aid from the UK and unfortunately there is little to suggest that British taxpayers' money is not being used to spread extremism and religious intolerance in Pakistan. It should not be forgotten that the extremist groups that have been allowed to put down roots in Pakistan have tendrils that reach as far as British soil. Dear British Christians, persecuted Christians are looking to you and if you stay comfortable, they will suffer. Let us dare to speak for them.

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