Not much to celebrate this Christmas | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.12.2013
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Not much to celebrate this Christmas

2013 was not much different for Pakistani Christians than previous years. This year too, they celebrate Christmas amid growing fear of persecution and widespread discrimination in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

On September 22, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the courtyard of Peshawar's All Saints church, killing 82 people and leaving as many injured. The attack on the church in the northwestern Pakistani city is believed to be the deadliest ever against the Christian community, which makes up about two percent of the 180 million people in Pakistan.

For decades, Peshawar's All Saints church symbolized religious harmony in the Islamic Republic, and was revered by Christians and Muslims alike. But in the past four or five years, Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose their strict shariah law on people. Not only that, many a time, Christians and other minorities have been attacked and mistreated by common Pakistanis for allegedly insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad.

According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 2013 was one of the worst years for religious minorities in the country: Several people were charged with blasphemy, many places of worship were burnt down and houses were looted all over the country.

'How can we celebrate Christmas?'

Pakistani Christians say there is not much to celebrate this Christmas.

Pakistani Christians decorate a church in Peshawar on December 24, 2009, to celebrate Christmas (Photo: A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

Before the rise of extremism in Pakistan, Christians celebrated Christmas with much enthusiasm

Fifty-three-year-old Anwar Khokhar, who lost six members of his family in the All Saints church attack, told AFP that as Christmas got nearer, he missed his deceased family members more and more.

Nasreen Anwar, a housewife, told the media that most Christian families in Peshawar were affected by September's carnage.

"In every family, one or two people were killed, so how can we celebrate Christmas? There will be no happiness," she said.

Living in fear

But more than attacks on their places of worship and houses, Pakistani Christians fear the controversial blasphemy laws. Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic for the majority of Pakistanis. The blasphemy laws were introduced by the Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, making it a crime punishable by death to speak ill of Islam and Muhammad. Although hundreds have been convicted of blasphemy, nobody in Pakistan has ever been executed for the offence. Most convictions are retracted after the accused makes an appeal. However, angry mobs have killed people accused of blasphemy.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas; they say the Christians are thereby often victimized.

Farzana Bari, director of Center for Women's Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, believes discrimination will persist unless there is radical change. "It is high time that the government reform these blasphemy laws," she told DW. "These laws are against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for the country."

Mohsin Sayeed, a journalist in Karachi, however, does not only blame the government. He told DW that what used to be comprised of a small section of society had now become mainstream.

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," he said. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society." He added that those who condemned such "barbaric crimes" had become a minority.

He also criticized the Pakistani judiciary for its "sympathetic" behavior toward the right-wing. "Don't forget that Asia Bibi is still in jail," he reminds.

A forgotten case

Asia Bibi, an impoverished 48-year-old farmer, was sentenced to death in 2010 after her neighbors accused her of insulting the prophet Muhammad. According to Bibi, she was involved in a dispute after some women laborers she was in the fields with said they would not drink water from the same bowl because she was not a Muslim. She said they slapped her and pulled her hair. They apparently later went to the police and accused her of making derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet.

Bibi's sentencing triggered an outcry among human rights groups and the international community. Pakistani rights organizations took up her case and campaigned for her release. Several Pakistani politicians also criticized Bibi's sentencing and imprisonment under the blasphemy laws.

Family members of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian minority women, who was sentenced to death by a local court for blasphemy (Photo: EPA/T. MUGHAL)

Bibi and her family await justice

But now Bibi's case seems all but forgotten. The media has stopped mentioning it, and the rights groups have ceased to follow it proactively.

"The attention of rights organizations got diverted to other cases of minorities' persecution," Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told DW. "There have been several cases similar to Bibi's in the past two or three years."

The veteran human rights activist expressed her dissatisfaction over the human rights situation of religious minorities in Pakistan. "Prime Minister Sharif hosted a Christmas reception at the prime minister's house but it was part of the tokenism," Yusuf said, adding that the government needed to take steps to change the situation on ground.