Pakistan elections: Christians are tired of meaningless rhetoric

Nasir Saeed

It is just a few days until Pakistanis head to the polls for historic elections on May 11 and extremists are doing their best to scare people into staying at home with their sickening bombing campaign.

The Pakistani government should have taken the necessary steps to ensure electioneering and voting would take place in an atmosphere of peace and security. I am disappointed but not surprised to see that so little has been done to meet this most basic requirement of democratic elections.

Casting a vote should not be a life-threatening action and it is a tragic injustice that an estimated 100 people have been killed in violence connected to the elections since April.

This is the sorry state Pakistan finds itself in just days away from what should be a nation-changing event – and all because those in power turn a blind eye to the hateful words and actions of extremists who care little for democracy or human life.

It is such extremists who regularly run amok in communities across Pakistan threatening, assaulting, vandalising, rampaging and even killing those they feel do not agree with their narrow ideology. The objects of their wrath are often Christians who know all too well after years of discrimination and persecution that their cries tend to fall on deaf ears in Pakistan.

Police often do not properly investigate instances of violence against Christians and in some cases even try to put the blame on the very Christians who were victimised. False blasphemy charges are routinely levelled against Christians on the basis of scant or questionable evidence. In such cases, mobs often take the law into their own hands with devastating consequences for the accused and their family.

We saw this recently when a Muslim mob went on the rampage in Joseph Colony, Lahore, torching 178 Christian houses, as well as churches and property, all because of an unproven allegation of blasphemy against a local Christian. As the mob carried out their violent attack, the police stood idly by.

The victims were paid compensation but everyone in Joseph Colony is wondering when the next attack will come. Just throwing out money is not an effective way to deal with such violence. The perpetrators should be brought to justice and made to answer for their actions, and the government should be the one making sure that happens if authorities at the local level are too weak or biased to.

Sadly when politicians speak of "equal rights and protection" – a slogan they love to bring out at election time – Christians know how hollow these words are. While the parties include such flowery rhetoric in their manifestos, we have yet to see a government actually bold enough to convert such proclamations into laws that will bring genuine improvement for Christians and other persecuted religious minorities.

Importantly, for all the nice words about equality, the politicians continue to ignore the fact that the electoral process itself is another a manifestation of inequality. Every candidate – including Christians – can be directly elected but the problem is that the political parties never nominate Christian candidates to stand for them in the elections. And even if they did, Muslims will never vote for non-Muslim candidates. This means that Christian candidates only ever get a seat in parliament through the reserved seats for minorities, of which there are just 10. Not only are these seats indirectly elected, they are shared among all the minorities and in the previous government, Christians were given only two of the reserved seats.

It is estimated that at least 96 out of the 272 constituencies have religious minority communities large enough to vote in a minority candidate but they are never given that chance. Instead, their only option is to vote for a Muslim candidate, sometimes the very candidate defending discrimination against them. History repeats itself and after every election, Christians once again find themselves with virtually no voice in parliament.

Even the more moderate candidates are unlikely to speak up for them in parliament. This has a lot to do with the very real threat to their lives from extremists. Sherry Rehman was courageous enough to try it and found herself on the receiving end of death threats before being reassigned as Pakistan's Ambassador to the US.

And let us not forget Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who bravely spoke up for the rights of Christians and paid with their lives. Taseer's murderer was hailed a hero in communities across Pakistan. Bhatti's killers have still not been caught.

Things have not changed because the rhetoric is never followed through with concrete action to enforce equality and uphold the value and dignity of all people. It starts with the people at the top; the political leaders. If they continue to give the impression that equality is just a campaign slogan, then why will anyone at the grassroots change their attitude?

It is the political leaders who must act to break the vicious cycle of discrimination that continues to marginalise Christians in the elections and in parliament. They must act to break the tradition of Muslims only voting for Muslims and of parties only putting forward Muslim candidates. Candidates should be elected on the basis of sound politics, not on the basis of their faith. This is the even playing field that Muslim MPs like Sadiq Khan and Khalid Mahmood enjoy in the UK.

I would love to see the same in my own country but in the case of Pakistan, as I have often said, it is not that changes cannot be made, but it is so often the case that there is no will to make the changes happen.

Pakistan's Christians would love to believe that the elections will herald in a 'New Pakistan', as the politicians are promising. But we have been around too long to know that words without actions have very little meaning and very little impact. I am an optimist by nature – as Christians we have to be – but my prediction is that the shadow of violence and death will hang over the heads of Christians, whoever comes into power.

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