Asia

Why are Pakistan's Christians targeted?

Pakistani Christians gather during an Easter service at a church in Lahore on 27 March 2016 Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Lahore is one of several cities with a significant Christian population

Pakistan's Christians, like other religious minorities in the country, have been the target of escalating attacks in recent years.

The attacks, on their residential areas and places of worship, have mostly been motivated by the country's controversial blasphemy laws.

But there have also been political motives.

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan explains more about the community and why it is being targeted.

How many Christians are there in Pakistan?

Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim but Christians and Hindus make up the largest minority groups, with each representing about 1.6% of the population.

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Image caption Besides Karachi, other cities like Lahore, Faisalabad and Peshawar also have Christian populations

The southern metropolis of Karachi has a large Christian population, as do the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad.

There are countless Christian villages in the Punjab heartland, while there is also a sizeable population in the deeply conservative north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly in Peshawar city.

Before the partition of India, what is now Pakistan was a much more diverse place but tolerance has declined as society has become increasingly Islamicised and more homogenous.

Minorities used to make up 15% of the population in these cities. Now they account for less than 4%.

Are they an influential group?

The majority of Pakistan's Christians are descended from low-caste Hindus who converted during the British Raj - partly to escape the caste system.

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Image caption Religious minorities including Christians have been increasingly targeted amid the growing Islamicisation of Pakistan

Many provided labour in garrison towns. In fact, to this day, every cantonment city in Pakistan has an area known as Lal Kurti, which is traditionally where the Christians reside.

But Christian communities remain among the poorest sections of society and often still do menial jobs. Entire villages in parts of Punjab are Christian and their inhabitants work as labourers and farmhands.

However, there are sections of the Christian community that are more well off. Better educated and mainly settled in Karachi, they came over from Goa during the British Raj.

What all of them share, though, is a sense of vulnerability. This has seen a number of wealthier Christians leaving Pakistan to settle in countries like Canada and Australia as they feel the climate of intolerance in the country has become unbearable.

Why are they being attacked?

Muslims and Christians mostly co-exist amiably enough without frequent outbreaks of animosity.

But accusations of blasphemy have also often led to mob violence against Christians, while militant Islamists have also targeted the community.

Recent attacks include:

  • An attack on a church in Quetta in December 2017 that killed nine people and injured 57
  • A suicide attack targeting Christians celebrating Easter at a Lahore playground in March 2016 left 70 dead and more than 340 wounded
  • Two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore in March 2015 killed 14 and hurt more than 70 people
  • A twin suicide bomb attack at a Peshawar church in 2013 left around 80 dead
  • In 2009, nearly 40 houses and a church were burnt by a mob in Gojra town in Punjab, with eight people burnt alive
  • In 2005, hundreds fled their homes in Faisalabad as churches and Christian schools were set on fire by a mob, after a resident was blamed for burning pages of the Koran
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Image caption Christians mounted anti-Taliban protests following the 2013 Peshawar bomb attacks

Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have also been convicted of "desecrating the Koran" or "blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad", although experts say most accusations are fuelled by personal disputes.

While most were handed death sentences by lower courts, those sentences were often set aside by higher courts due to lack of evidence or because the complainants were found to be targeting the community for economic benefits.

In 2012, a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, became the first non-Muslim to be acquitted in a blasphemy case when it was discovered she had been framed by a local Muslim cleric.

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Image caption Many Islamists saw Qadri as a martyr and protested against his execution

Perhaps the best known example is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from a Punjab village who in 2010 got into an altercation with some Muslim women and was later accused by them of having blasphemed.

Salman Taseer, the then governor of Punjab who stated that Pakistan's strict blasphemy law had been abused in the case, was later murdered by his Islamist bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri.

Qadri was found guilty and executed in February 2016, prompting mass protests.

Pakistan's minister for minority affairs and a Christian leader, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in 2011 by the Taliban for speaking out against the law.

Are there any other reasons?

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Image caption Many Christians are among the poorest in Pakistani society

Some of the violence is directly related to the American-led war in Afghanistan, so it has an expressly political motive.

Months after the US-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in late 2001, a grenade attack on a chapel inside a Christian mission hospital in Taxila city killed four people.

A couple of months later, gunmen executed six workers of a Christian charity in their Karachi office. These incidents, although isolated, have continued through the years.

Attacks on Pakistan's Christian and Hindu minorities could be part of a militant plan to send a message to the West or embarrass the country's civilian governments when they appear to be too friendly to the West.

This may also be a strategy by the country's powerful military which is known to have protected Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan and India, and has supported anti-blasphemy vigilante groups in the past.

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