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Tough times for Pakistan’s religious minorities

As the echo of hymns fades at St. Andrews Church, the call to prayer begins at the mosque next door on another Sunday in Karachi, Pakistan, where both steeples and minarets reach for the heavens.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the echo of hymns fades at St. Andrews Church, the call to prayer begins at the mosque next door on another Sunday in Karachi, where both steeples and minarets reach for the heavens.

The Rev. Pervaiz Sultan preaches to a congregation of several hundred amid the 19th century church's graceful stone columns about hopes for God's blessings and prosperity for all in Pakistan.

Seeking that prosperity, however, has been getting harder for Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan in recent years. Losing one of their best advocates in the moderate Benazir Bhutto won't help.

The constitution enshrines freedom to worship, yet Christians feel intimidated by rising extremism. Rights activists say dozens are currently jailed on blasphemy charges.

"I feel I am needed more because the situation is deteriorating," said Sultan, 52, who is also principal at St. Thomas Theological College, training up to 50 students at a time in the ministry. "We haven't given up hopes that we would like all people to be equal."

Christians have felt more vulnerable in Pakistan since the Sept. 11 attacks that were followed by a spike of militant attacks against churches, in some cases directed at the foreign community. While Christians continue to practice, few wear outward symbols of their faith.

Pakistan was established as an Islamic state 60 years ago, but nearly 6 million of the 165 million population are from religious minorities, according to the government.

Private estimates run far higher. Shahbaz Bhatti, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, an umbrella organization for minority religions, claimed there were more than 10 million Christians, up to 6 million Hindus and 5 million Buddhists, Zoroastrians and others.

'Tremendous setback' for minorities
Although a Muslim, Bhutto was rare among major politicians in actively cultivating the support of minorities among an electorate where Islam has far more currency. She was particularly outspoken about the need to combat the Taliban and al-Qaida forces whom the government says killed her.

"Bhutto's assassination is a tremendous setback for Pakistan's religious minorities," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Bhutto attended Christian schools in Karachi, which are widely respected among the elite for their discipline and high academic standards. President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz both attended St. Patrick's High School in Karachi.

Father Anthony Martis, principal of St. Paul's School, another prestigious institute in the city, said there was no attempt to convert Muslims who make up more than 70 percent of the student body. Classes on Islam and Christianity are offered separately for students from each faith.

Tolerance for religious minorities has deteriorated in Pakistan since Bhutto's father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was forced from power and executed in 1979 under the regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Zia introduced Islamist reforms including laws banning blasphemy against Islam. The offense is punishable by death although such a sentence is not known to have been carried out.

Such laws are often abused to settle local disputes and discriminate against minorities, according to the U.S. State Department's latest report on religious freedom in Pakistan.

Bhatti of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance said the law was a "weapon in the hands of the Islamic extremists to persecute and victimize Christian minorities," adding that more than 100 Christians remained jailed for blasphemy. Churches are also attacked every year, he said.

Other than their European-sounding names, there is little to distinguish Christians from other Pakistanis. But they are often employed in menial jobs such as cleaners or domestic staff although their education and command of English is relatively high.

'Our prayer and our vision'
The several ornate churches in Karachi — Pakistan's largest city and home to its largest concentration of Christians — date to the British occupation of the subcontinent and seem to be the oldest structures standing in its rough-and-tumble streets. They are protected as historical landmarks by the government and surrounded by tall walls, although security for Sunday services appears no more heavy than the presence of an armed guard or two.

The service at St. Andrews, an Anglican church, combined local traditions with Christian practice. Men and women sat mostly separate on opposite sides of the church, where the altar was covered with woven carpets. The music and liturgy were in the local language Urdu, and a keyboardist was accompanied by a man beating on the bongo-style drums common to south Asian music.

Built originally by the British military, the wooden church pews are carved with the insignia of various units. One even bears the United States' eagle seal and the inscription "U.S. Forces" dated 1942-1946, commemorating the apparent presence of Americans during World War II while the subcontinent was under British occupation before its 1947 independence and partition into India and Pakistan.

Pervez Austin, 51, a government worker, complained that Christians could not preach openly or spread their faith in the media. "People are not enlightened enough to tolerate such type of preaching," he said.

The Rev. Sultan was an optimist despite the dashed hopes for minorities after Bhutto's death, saying he hoped they could play a role with all people in the country facing greater uncertainty.

"We Christians have always seen a future in Pakistan because we feel that God has put us here to witness to the Gospel," he said. "We would like to see our political system more stable, more strong, and the nation should be developing smoothly and political changes happening more smoothly — this is our prayer and our vision."