ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – This Islamic republic's wealthy and cosmopolitan capital is jokingly referred to as "a beautiful city 15 minutes from Pakistan." But life is no laughing matter for Islamabad's Christian community.
Most of the city's Christians can be found living in ramshackle houses constructed over open sewers in ghettos hidden from sight behind whitewashed walls. Authorities supply no power or gas to the slums, which are essentially cities within cities and in some cases are nestled between Islamabad's most plush neighborhoods.
Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed in 1947 that his countrymen "may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the state."
But the modern reality is very different. Most people in Pakistan are Muslims and Jinnah's imagined secular state has become increasingly theocratic after decades of dictatorships and official Islamism. Christians, particularly the poor belonging to the agricultural center and north of the country, are considered outcasts by many and find themselves pushed to the edge of society.
Islamabad's Christians allege rampant discrimination by the conservative Pakistan Muslim League government. They say their small proportion of the population means they don't stand a chance at the ballot box and are now demanding a voice.
Recently retired cook Rehmat Masih has lived in Islamabad for four decades. The 65-year-old offers a bleak assessment of life in a Christian slum.
"I think being Christian, in this place, this Pakistan, is a crime," he said. "If we speak out, our corpses will be on the road."
Masih lives in "100 Quarters," a litter-strewn slum tucked between Islamabad’s posh Margalla and Hill Roads. It is named after the first 100 apartments granted to Christians by the government in the 1960s, but it has since grown and now houses more than 1,000 Christian families.
“They say that Islamabad is a great capital of a great nation,” said Masih, standing next to an overflowing drain. “But they let us live like this in middle of Islamabad. Officials drive by every day in BMWs and see this. Yet we are kept like this. Why?”
"We are too scattered, too divided, too uneducated"
According to the National Minority Alliance (NMA), Christians form under three percent of Pakistan’s estimated 180 million people. But the community is spread all over the country, making it almost impossible for Christians to elect representatives who share their religion because they lack the numbers in a free-for-all poll. Almost always faced with a choice of a Muslim candidate from mainstream parties, they have to depend on a handful of “reserved” seats for minorities for representation in the 343-seat parliament, where non-Muslim minorities - Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians - have only 10 seats.
Critics like Samuel Yaqoob, of the Muslim-Christian Coalition, say those seats are given to "friends and favorites of the ruling parties, not actual spokespersons of our community."
“We are too scattered, too divided, too uneducated,” added Robin Daniel, of the National Minority Alliance.
Many residents of the capital's Christian slums work in sanitation, cleaning sewers and collecting refuse. Others provide domestic help for Islamabad’s well-heeled. Students from private high schools can be spotted with their expensive cars parked near the gates of such slums during afternoons, purchasing narcotics from Christian teenagers.
“Our problems are social, legal and political,” said Shahryar Shams, 25, a newly graduated lawyer. “In theory, all fundamental rights for minorities are granted by the Constitution of Pakistan. But we lack organized political leadership in our own community. We face increasing extremism from the rest of society too ... But our biggest issue is that we are represented by those who are selected by the powers that be, and not through our direct vote.”
In September, a suicide bomb attack on a church killed at least 75 people. And in March 2013, a Muslim mob set ablaze almost 200 buildings in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Lahore.
Pakistan's much-debated "Blasphemy Law" is also often used to target Christians and other minorities. In 2012, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was falsely accused of burning the Quran, the sacred Islamic text. Charges were later dropped amid international concern for her safety, but the law, remains on the books. Those accused under an anti-blasphemy law are sometimes lynched by the public even if they are found innocent by the courts.
But Fazeela Bibi, 17, a Christian high-school dropout who works as an office assistant at the American Embassy in Islamabad, suggested that the community was traditionally "not united" enough to drive change.
“One person can't do anything alone," she said, while preparing lunch over a wood stove in a 100 Quarters courtyard adjacent to a drain oozing out monsoon rains and refuse. "Injustice cannot be fought alone."
Wajahat S. Khan / NBC News
Fazeela Bibi, a 17-year-old resident of the "100 Quarters" slum, says Christians are unfairly treated in Pakistan but also acknowledges that the community is not organized.
Masih, the retired cook, has been unsuccessfully trying for 14 months to meet his elected local representative to request repairs for a broken electric transformer. He wasn’t too optimistic about the future.
“I'm pretty sure that we will remain living like this,” he said. “That's how it’s been for 67 years. There are no angels in Islamabad. Only politicians.”
First published August 17 2014, 2:23 AM