Can a Christian live in Pakistan
Living as a Christian in Pakistan
Were you surprised by the attack on Easter Sunday in Lahore?
Christian Fischer: Unfortunately not and that's sad. When I was there from 2012 to 2014, there were also attacks on churches. Above all, however, there have been repeated attacks on Shiite mosques. Shiite minorities are actually the main target of the radical Taliban's attacks in Pakistan. Two-thirds of the victims of the Easter attack are Muslims. There are very radical factions that are completely out of control. Pakistan is going through a very sad story.
The Jamaatul Ahrar group had confessed to the attack and said they wanted to target Christians. It first split off from the Pakistani Taliban, briefly committed itself to the terrorist organization “Islamic State”, but then later returned to the Taliban. The situation seems confusing.
Fisherman: There are many factions in Pakistan. This creates a very complicated situation. The faction responsible for the attack is too radical even for the normal Taliban. Usually, Pakistani intelligence and the military fight the Taliban with success, but no one has control over these small groups. In Pakistan there are the so-called “good” Taliban and the “bad” Taliban and the good ones are those who, in our view, are radical Islamist, but reject violence, especially against women and children. The government, police, military and secret service even work sporadically with the “good” Taliban.
How is the blasphemy paragraph, which has existed in Pakistan since 1986, used against Christians?
Fisherman: This paragraph is controversial even in Pakistan. It is often used to resolve land disputes. You just accuse a neighbor of blasphemy, at best a Christian neighbor. It can be a very minor thing that someone expressed disrespect for the Koran or the Prophet Mohammed. This is how you get rid of unpleasant neighbors or opponents, or even your own family members. The blasphemy clause is often misused and is also directed against Muslims themselves. But Christians particularly suffer from it because it is easiest to bring them to justice.
Your name was Chris in Pakistan because Christian is not a good name in Pakistan?
Fisherman: If someone is called Islam here in Germany, that first name also exists, it doesn't go down well everywhere. There are prejudices that people have no idea what a name like that means. That's why I just avoided my full name, on the recommendation of my local Pakistani colleagues.
What prejudices are Christians exposed to in Pakistan?
Fisherman: Christians do the lowest work in Pakistan, often what is considered unclean. As a result, Christians often belong to the marginalized class of the population. There are exceptions, but this is usually the case. Or they are very rich, who are then also networked internationally and can travel a lot abroad.
Does the everyday life of Christian Pakistanis differ from that of other religious minorities in the country?
Fisherman: Pakistan as a whole is a very conservative society. Everything that is different and does not fit in, including religious minorities, is in the limelight and is often marginalized and discriminated against.
An office of the Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe in Punjaab was closed in 2012?
Fisherman: Yes, because there were attacks and kidnappings by the Taliban that were directed against foreigners. Two Welthungerhilfe employees were kidnapped in Multan at the time. That was a conscious decision due to the security situation.
How has the situation of the religious minorities in Pakistan developed during the time you were there?
Fisherman: In the almost three years that I have been there, the situation has not changed significantly. But colleagues in the country told me that something has changed when you look back a few years. There was even a "good old days" when the religious minorities lived peacefully side by side and violence did not play a role.
15 years ago there was tourism and you could take a bus to the mountains or from Peshawar to Kabul. That has changed radically. There was more peace under the dictatorship of Musharraf because he ruled the country with an iron hand. At the same time, he made sure that ethnic groups or religious minorities are not disadvantaged. Many see this as a step backwards today and long for the supposedly good old days, for the hard hand. Christians especially long for it. Christians were actually better off under the dictatorship.
That is true of many Arab societies.
Fisherman: Yes, the Taliban were founded in Pakistan and were used by the Western secret service against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. They later became independent. With the IS, a completely new actor has now appeared. It started when I was still in Pakistan that ISIS wall paintings and flags suddenly appeared. Some Taliban splinter groups also joined IS, while others continued to operate independently. The whole structure on site is very complicated. The loyalties go all over the place: Sometimes to people, to ethnic tribal affiliations, specific political or religious orientations and the loyalty is then changed again. Money often plays a role too; the Pakistani security forces are actively involved - it is very complicated.
How did you experience your everyday life as a Christian in Pakistan?
Fisherman: I didn't actually appear as a Christian. It started when I dropped my name. Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe did not appear Christian or religious, but purely as a humanitarian organization. The key word is “low profile”, you don't use a logo or other mark of the organization and try not to attract public attention. I avoided going to religious events and larger gatherings, or even just going to church for worship. As an aid organization in Pakistan, we had very strict safety rules and that was the right thing to do. Because the danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is very great, as has now been seen in Lahore but also in other bomb attacks.
As a foreign aid organization, we are exposed and have to be careful. It was very important to a Catholic worker from the Philippines to practice his Christianity. He then drove to the highly secured diplomatic enclave, to where the embassies are. On Sundays he attended the service in the small church there, if the security situation allowed. Otherwise, religious life for Christians is currently more hidden or under great danger.
What do you know about the everyday life of Pakistani Christians?
Fisherman: We have had partner organizations where Christians have worked who have come out between the lines as a Christian organization. We had Christian employees - you can tell in Pakistan by the names of the people. But they do not appear publicly as such. I went to a Christian employee's wedding once. That was the limit for me. What the Christians said in conversations was that they felt absolutely safe in their surroundings, even in the Islamic area of their district or village. There is little prejudice, at most the usual neighborhood envy.
But the Christians have emphasized that the danger comes from outside. Either from passing Taliban who do not come from the village, or because of the global political situation. For example from the Mohammed cartoons or these anti-Islamist films in the USA. Then the Pakistani Christians, and so do we, really took cover. People got excited very quickly via the electronic networks and you had to see that you weren't made a scapegoat. But overall there is more of a discrimination against Christians, but no targeted persecution.
Then Christians in Pakistan live under constant tension?
Fisherman: Many Christians see their life as without perspective. In the past, more was possible, I was told. For example, you could have a career as a Christian in the military or become something as a civil servant in an authority. That no longer seems to be the case because there are superiors who are more cautious about even inviting Christians to job interviews - because they in turn are afraid that they will then be held responsible for them from outside, by the Taliban, by radical elements Promote Christians.
Because the Minister for Social Harmony, a Christian, had stood up for a Christian who was charged with the blasphemy paragraph. This minister was then killed by his Muslim bodyguard.
Fisherman: These are subtle stories, which is why a lot of people have told me they would like to leave the country. You can see that here too: Pakistanis are among the top ten refugees in Germany. There is a lot of hatred by narrow-minded people towards religious minorities, but also towards women, for example.
But aren't there two large churches in Lahore?
Fisherman: There and in the south of the country more is possible than where we worked back then. In Peshawar, in the tribal areas of the north-west, the few existing churches are extremely secure: sandbags are in front of them, the armed guards secure the buildings, and you walk through a metal detector to get into the church. It looks like a war there. It is very depressing. This violence, the bombings, the kidnappings - they all happen in Pakistan. Then there are the drone attacks. Fear is always with you and makes life there very exhausting.
What is being done to improve understanding?
Fisherman: Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe is dedicated to reconstruction and purely humanitarian aid, while “Bread for the World” in Pakistan focuses on interreligious harmony, conflict management and women's rights. Overall, it is about strengthening civil society beyond the military and government. It is important to look beyond churches and Islamic structures to see how small civil society groups can be promoted in order to be able to counter violence and religious hatred.
Interview: Lilith Becker (evangelisch.de)
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