Country Profile: Pakistan
Updated June 2015
Population: 196 million
Government: Federal republic
Religion: Muslim 95.8%; Christian 2.4%; Hindu 1.6%; Other 0.2%
Pakistan was created by the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 following Indian Muslims’ demand for a separate homeland.
Its present-day borders were established in 1971 when former East Pakistan, which was mainly Bengali-speaking, broke away to become Bangladesh.
Neither civilian regimes nor military dictatorships have brought political stability to a country still crippled by poverty and violence.
Pakistan’s international respectability nosedived when General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999. Yet Pakistan’s standing improved after the September 11 attacks in 2001, when it became a key ally of the US in the fight against global terrorism.
President Asif Ali Zardari came to power in September 2008, shortly after his predecessor Musharraf resigned under threat of impeachment; then in 2013 President Mamnoon Hussain was sworn in. Successive governments have waged a rolling military campaign against militants, particularly in tribal areas.
The founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnar, promised equal rights for religious minorities. Yet Christians are among the poorest and most marginalised in Pakistani society.
In areas such as Punjab, most people in bonded labour in, for example, Pakistan’s brick kilns, are Christian. Christian women in particular are generally forced to take low-paid work, often in domestic service, and many reportedly suffer physical and sexual abuse from their employers. There have been many reports of Christian women and girls being abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men against their will.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion: proselytising among Muslims is banned. A form of Sharia (Islamic law) called the Hudood Ordinance, introduced in 1979, enforces Islamic penalties for crimes such as extra-marital sex. Islamic hard-liners lead a strong opposition and make reform difficult.
Indeed, radical Islam is spreading. Islamic extremists have gained popular support by providing hospitals, job training, universities – and Islamic schools or madrassas. Their curriculum often includes military training for jihad (or holy war).
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – especially the notorious Section 295C of the Penal Code – are often used against religious minorities to settle personal scores. So the number of Christians charged is disproportionately high.
The death sentence has been given for Blasphemy a number of times but this has never actually resulted in execution. People sentenced to death tend to be acquitted shortly before their sentence is carried out
Courtrooms packed with extremists have often pressured judges into returning a guilty verdict or continuing trials indefinitely.
Politicians’ promises about reviewing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come to nothing. Meanwhile, Christians accused of blasphemy can languish in jail for years. Asia Bibi, a farm labourer from Punjab, remains on death row, awaiting an appeal hearing at the Supreme Court, after being sentenced to death for blasphemy following her arrest in June 2009. She was accused after drinking from a Muslim’s cup at a well. The law offers little protection to Christians, given their low social status. So assaults on believers continue. Police are accused of apathy – or even complicity – in some attacks.
There was widespread condemnation of the murder of Shehzad Masih and his wife Shama, a Christian couple from Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore, in November 2014. They were beaten and burned in the brick kiln where they worked, following accusations of blasphemy.
Then, in April 2015, 13-year-old Christian Nauman Masih died of his injuries after extremists in Lahore doused him with petrol and set him alight – simply because he was a Christian.
More recently, extremists have targeted churches as well as individuals.
In September 2013, two suicide bombs were detonated in the compound of All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, leaving more than 80 people dead and 200 injured, in the worst attack on Christians for years. Christians complained that hospitals were not managing to provide the injured with adequate medical treatment.
The attack led to demonstrations across the country in which Christians demanded that the Government do more to protect religious minorities’ rights.
Then, in March 2015, twin suicide bombs were detonated outside churches in Youhanabad, a Christian area of Lahore, killing 15 people and injuring 80. Scores of Christians were arrested in connection with subsequent riots in which two suspected extremists were killed.
Current and recent projects include:
- Practical and pastoral support for more than 100 Christian prisoners and their families
- Backing for a group of lawyers who work to uphold the rights of religious minorities, including Christians
- Supporting the production and distribution of Christian literature, videos and CDs
- Practical projects to help the marginalised community
Sources: BBC; International Christian Concern; Operation World (2010); Release International; Release partners; The World Factbook 2015.