Pakistan election: Christians in alliance with Islamists in Lahore

Christian woman in the Joseph Colony area of Lahore
Image caption The Joseph Colony area of Lahore is a run-down neighbourhood with a significant Christian community

At first glance, the sight of flags with black and white stripes fluttering atop several Christian homes in the run-down Joseph Colony neighbourhood of Lahore seems highly incongruous.

The flags are those of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Pakistan's largest Islamic religious party, which is often described as being close to the Taliban. The JUI-F and the Christian community are definitely not natural bedfellows.

The flags seem all the more out of place when one considers that this neighbourhood was attacked by a Muslim mob in March on the pretext that one of its residents blasphemed against Islam. More than 50 houses were destroyed and hundreds were left homeless.

So why should the JUI-F be supported here of all places ahead of general elections on 11 May?

For Joseph Colony's Christian residents, the answer is straightforward.

"JUI-F leaders were the only ones who approached us after the carnage and offered us both moral and material support," says Daniel, 30, a local resident.

"The only other party to do the same was [another Islamist party] the Jamaat-e-Islami. None of the others came to ask how we were managing under the open sky during those hard days."

Strong voice

Later, the Punjab government provided financial assistance for homeless people to rebuild their homes. But residents say some rebuilding funds also came from the JUI-F.

Image caption Muslim hardliners attacked Christians in the Joseph Colony area in March

So is the drift of religious minorities towards the JUI-F a new phenomenon?

"Certainly not," says Jan Assakzai, the party's spokesman in Islamabad.

"The JUI-F has a history of standing up for minority rights [which] goes back a long way."

After the 2008 elections, the JUI-F became the first political party to select a Christian woman, Aasia Nasir, for one of its parliamentary seats reserved for women.

Women have 60 reserved seats in the Pakistani parliament, filled by MPs nominated by their parties. No other party has ever nominated a non-Muslim woman for one of these seats.

During the last five years, Mrs Nasir has been a strong voice in the parliament, often using harsh words against the "Muslim mindset" that led to incidents like the 2009 riots in Gojra in which at least eight Christians were burnt to death and 24 Christian homes were set on fire.

Divisions narrowed

The Christian community also remembers clearly the 2011 assassination of former minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, in addition to the more recent Joseph Colony incident.

"If I were a member of any other party, I would have been expelled for the language I sometimes used in the parliament," Mrs Nasir says.

Instead she and other minority members of the JUI-F are regularly consulted on matters concerning minorities and on other major issues.

"We at the JUI-F are best placed to narrow the divisions between the Muslims and the religious minorities," Mrs Nasir says.

"This is because we have an authentic Muslim religious leadership which is widely respected in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the Pakistani tribal areas."

Mrs Nasir is now campaigning for the JUI-F in Joseph Colony and other Christian settlements in Lahore where the party has fielded candidates.

Another Christian party campaigner in Lahore is Akram Waqar Gill, a JUI-F member for 18 years. He is now president of the party's minorities wing in Punjab province.

Mr Gill spearheaded efforts to investigate a case in 2012 in which a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was accused of blasphemy by a Muslim cleric.

Controversial blasphemy law

He says that a JUI-F committee held internal hearings and concluded that the girl had been wrongly accused by elements that wanted to occupy lucrative land on which a small Christian community lived in the vicinity of Islamabad.

Image caption Christians in Joseph Colony are still carrying out repairs from violence in April

Charges against the girl were dropped by a court a few months later.

"The JUI-F does not oppose Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, but party chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman does support the view that steps should be taken to stop its misuse by commercial interests and land-grabbing mafias," Mr Gill says.

More significantly, in 2008 the JUI-F blocked a government proposal to build a dam on the Hingol river in Balochistan province that would have inundated the ancient Hindu cave-temple of Hinglaj.

Dr Jay Prakash, a JUI-F member for 20 years and twice a minister in the Balochistan cabinet, played a key role in stopping the move from going ahead.

"When it became apparent that the federal government's plan to build the Hingol dam was going to affect the temple, I opposed it, and took the matter to the party which then shared power with the PPP party both in the centre and in Balochistan," Dr Prakash said.

The JUI-F's consultations with alliance partners led to a unanimous Balochistan parliament resolution rejecting the dam project.

The JUI-F is the only religious party to have built alliances with secular parties like the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP).

Perhaps because of this image, it has angered Sunni Muslim hardliners and militants, creating a deep enmity with them.

"In the past, the militants have killed a number of key leaders of the party," JUI-F spokesman Jan Assakzai says. "Maulana Fazlur Rahman has survived two suicide attacks."

Just this week two of the party's election candidates were targeted in the north-west, while its candidates in Punjab have also been attacked by hardline groups.

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