Christians under increasing pressure in Pakistan

Christians have faced persecution in Pakistan for years but the climate has deteriorated in recent months with the murders of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and particularly since the burning of a Koran at the church of Florida pastor Terry Jones last month.

Last Saturday, the Sarhadi Lutheran Church in Mardan, Khyberpakhtunkhwa province, was targeted in a bomb attack.

It is believed that Islamic militants planted the bomb that caused considerable damage to the building.

Despite people being present at the church at the time, no one was killed or injured in the explosion, according to Assist news.

The church’s pastor, the Rev Ghulam Shad, said: “It appears that the militants only wanted to demolish the church, but not to injure any of our people.”

When asked by the news service about the church’s attitude towards the perpetrators, he answered: “All we can do is to pray for them as we are taught by our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The day before, a Muslim man entered a church in Lahore and tore the Bible in retaliation for the Koran burning. He was reportedly detained by police and is awaiting trial.

According to Assist news, Lahore archdiocesan vicar general Andrew Nisari urged Christians not to seek revenge.

“Promise me you won’t riot,” he said during mass at Lahore’s Sacred Heart Cathedral last Sunday.

“Promise me you won’t fight. It is another trial for Christianity in Pakistan. Be patient in suffering and follow the passion of Christ.”

Retired Lahore Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha was quoted by UCA news as saying: “The state will deal with the criminal. Pursuing the matter will invite more trouble. However, we are deeply concerned with growing anti-Christian sentiments.”

One of Pakistan’s most outspoken advocates for the rights of Christians, Joseph Francis, has received death threats in recent months.

Francis is the director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which provides persecuted Christians in Pakistan with free legal support and has lobbied hard for the repeal of the controversial blasphemy laws.

CLAAS has appealed to Christians to pray for his safety.

In a message to the ministry’s supporters, Mr Francis vowed to continue speaking up for the rights of Christians in spite of the death threats.

“Even though I am receiving threats to my life, as a soldier of Christ I am willing to stand up for the rights of those persecuted and pressed down by these unjust laws, even if the ultimate goal demands my blood too,” he said.

“I know I have opposition from the religious extremists who want to stop me from defending my brothers and sisters in Christ from all kinds of persecution, but I will continue my struggle for the repeal of blasphemy and other Islamic discriminatory laws.”

The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) is appealing to Christians in Britain to stand by their brothers and sisters in Pakistan. It is planning to hold a protest on July 2 to call for reform of the blasphemy laws and the Pakistani constitution.

Wilson Chowdhry, of the BPCA, said many of the atrocities faced by Christians in Pakistan had “gone rather unnoticed” by the world.

“Historically in the UK, the largest protest we have managed to organise through our community has been limited to around 250 people.

“Without wider Christian support, we are doomed to failure,” he said.

This Wednesday, the Masih Foundation is asking Christians around the world to light a candle and say prayers for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five sentenced to death for blasphemy last November. She remains in prison awaiting an appeal against her sentence.

Bibi is reportedly continuing to fast and pray for other Christians despite being ill in prison with chicken pox.