The National Review•October 29, 2018
Bangkok — Thailand’s capital of Bangkok is a large, bustling, chaotic metropolis. The friendly, informal nation of Thailand draws visitors from around the world. Filling some backstreet neighborhoods are impoverished Pakistani Christians, stranded in the Thai capital while hoping to gain religious asylum elsewhere. They survive with support from my friends at Christian Freedom International, which aids victims of religious persecution, and other humanitarian groups.
The problem reflects domestic failures in Pakistan, especially social and legal discrimination and persecution, often violent, against religious minorities. Islamabad is formally an American ally but in practice has constantly challenged U.S. interests. The domestic political system is unstable, corrupt, and dominated by the military. Religious minorities suffer: not just Christians, but Ahmadis, Hindus, and others as well.
Pervasive persecution has driven Pakistanis abroad in search of asylum. Noted the Global Minorities Alliance: “An increase of attacks against minorities in Pakistan . . . has led to Christians heavy-heartedly fleeing their country,” many to Thailand.
There’s not much the U.S. government can do to ease Christians’ plight in Pakistan, other than press Islamabad to protect the lives, dignity, and liberties of all their peoples. But Washington could accept the few thousand Pakistanis stuck in Bangkok, essentially people without a country, unable to go either forward or backward. Even the Trump administration should welcome religious minorities fleeing Islamist oppression.
Pakistan long has been inhospitable to anyone other than Sunni Muslims. General-turned-president Muhammad al-Zia-ul-Haq ruled from 1978 to 1988; he consolidated power by playing to radical Islamist sentiments, shifting the nation away from the original secular vision of founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The latter promised: “Minorities, to whoever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith, or belief will be secure.” Alas, that sentiment died years ago, and the furies Zia loosed now are ravaging the country.
Christian-persecution watchdog group Open Doors ranked Pakistan as the world’s number-five persecutor on its World Watch List. Islamabad lags behind only North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan.
The British All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief recently detailed the awful state of religious liberty in Pakistan. The MPs’ report noted: “Pakistan presents a particularly bleak environment for individuals wishing to manifest their right to freedom of religion or belief.” Important issues, the group pointed out, include lack of political representation, blasphemy laws, inadequate protection of religious minorities and their defenders, and brutal threats against women, adults, and children.
The problem is twofold: There is both state and private persecution. The APPG warned that the result is “a dangerous environment for any adherent of a religious belief not deemed ‘orthodox’ by those around them to practice their right to manifest their beliefs.” Of course, not everyone suffers equally. The report noted “the likelihood of persecution depends on factors such as their encounters with and actions amongst people of other/different faiths or beliefs,” as well as other issues. One action that makes anyone vulnerable is conversion: “If a Muslim makes a decision to become a Christian — becoming an apostate and, in turn, blaspheming against the Prophet — and their conversion becomes public knowledge, their life will be at risk.”
Last year the Global Minorities Alliance produced a report entitled “Are Christians in Pakistan Persecuted?” The answer was an obvious yes. Pakistan has the world’s second-largest Muslim population, trailing only Indonesia. More than 96 percent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim; just 1.5 percent are Christians, who nevertheless constitute the largest minority group. The GMA found that they, along with other religious minorities, “are routinely marginalized and are often condemned to a life of poverty, disadvantage and the fear of persecution.”
Jinnah’s inclusive vision “was never fulfilled,” concluded GMA. Even under Zia the situation deteriorated, after the introduction of blasphemy laws in the 1980s. The situation worsened again under President Pervez Musharraf, after he backed the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom rated Pakistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department put Pakistan on its “Special Watch List.” State’s annual religious-liberty report repeats the sad saga of pervasive discrimination, brutality, and persecution. False blasphemy charges often led to mob violence, the “basic rights” of Ahmadis were denied, and the “authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities.”
Such general descriptions do not give a true sense of the ubiquitous and oppressive nature of religious persecution in Pakistan. Umair Javed, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, writes that “violence against minority groups is deeply embedded within political and social processes in Pakistan.”