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Lahore’s Christian community finds itself in a quandary

After the killing of former Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, allegedly by his own bodyguard, and the ensuing protests, Lahore’s Christian community finds itself in a quandary.

Moments after the Pubjab governor was shot to death in his car

Nervous about their status in the city, many Christians are laying low so as to not draw any attention to themselves. The fear of being declared “blasphemers” has gripped many in the community in Lahore which is the capital of the Pakistan province of Punjab and the second largest city in Pakistan, after Karachi.

Lalaza Masih, a middle-aged Christian man who resides in east Lahore, standing outside his brick flat, explained that the city’s attitude towards the Christian community had changed.

“Generally, people in the community fear discussing religion with others. My neighbors and I don’t really interact much,” he said.

“The thing is we are scared that we are being watched and suddenly some allegations leading to a fatwa will materialize,” he added.

Masih agreed that it was uncomfortable to live like this, but on the other hand, he said his attitude had ensured that he did not have any religious confrontation. He lamented that the openness the city’s Christian community once high profile had now disappeared.

“There are only a few areas which allows for interaction between religious communities, he said.

Anarkali [a Lahore district] resident, Nasreen, said that since Taseer’s death there had been a “sharp change in the attitudes” in her area, but “feelings of intolerance have been building for some time. She said that many Muslims now had disparaging names for Christians and members of the community that were employed as laborers and domestic workers which has caused them to be intimidated.

“I think it’s best for us if we just stay quiet and not make a fuss,” said Nasreen.

A pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the number of people who came to the church “due to fear” had grown. He said his church hoped for a more “tolerant environment” but he added, that “many have chosen to be aloof” as a strategy to deal with their fears.

Commandos take up position at one of two worship places stormed last year by gunmen in Lahore (Photo: AFP)

“There is no doubt that the community is scared of becoming outcasts. We must move towards a more tolerant Pakistan. We have to stand united against terrorism and extremism,” the pastor said.

Mr. Haroon Masih, Chairman of the Masihi Foundation, a Humanitarian organization providing legal aid to Asia Bibi, the 45-year-old Christian mother-of-five who has been sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, said that Taseer’s killing had changed the dynamics of Lahori society.

He said that the government’s reaction to Taseer’s death and the countless protests since then showed a lack of commitment to rule of law.

“No action has been taken against hate speeches,” he said adding that the minorities were scared as “the message that has been sent” was that hate speech and walk chalking [public sidewalk chalk drawing] “were permissible.”

The police, he said, had shown “no interest” in curbing hate speech. The impression was that the state really had no interest in protecting its minorities, he added.

Religious scholar, Dr. Khalid Zaheer, said, “We owe freedom of expression, tolerance and love to our religious minorities. The current attitude reflects a lack of confidence in our own faith.”

Dr. Zaheer added, “We cannot reason in an environment of tension. We are scaring our minorities. God will not spare us.”

Mr. Rizwan Paul, Vice President of Life for All, said, “I visited a Montessori for the teachers training program a few weeks ago and I met a teacher who told me that a three-year-old drew a picture of God as his favorite person and submitted to him as the teacher in the class.

“Will we apply the blasphemy law here too?”, he asked.

Rodrick Samson is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.

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