Religious Extremism in Pakistan: A Christian Response

Introduction

Since 9/11, hardly a day goes by without some religiously motivated act of extremism. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, religious extremism worldwide claims nearly 100,000 Christian lives annually. Since the 1980s, Sunni Islamic extremism has been on the rise in Pakistan, where the tiny Christian community has suffered tremendously. In Pakistan, religious extremism is not limited to extremist organizations; it also exists on individual, group, and institutional levels.

Charles S. Liebman, Israeli Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, has identified three dimensions of religious extremism, all easily observable in Pakistan today: (1) the expansion and imposition of religious laws, (2) harsh attitudes toward those who do not accept extremist norms, and (3) the rejection of cultural forms and values alien to the religious tradition (“Extremism as a Religious Norm” 1983). Faced with these realities, the Christian community of Pakistan must choose how to respond. Perhaps the most extreme response of all is to follow Christ, no matter the cost.

Impact of Religious Extremism on Christians

Pakistani minorities, including Christians, have felt betrayed as each successive government fails to honor the promises made by the nation’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, of equality and freedom of religion. At the time of the nation’s founding in 1947, 60% of the Pakistani population were Muslims and 40% were religious minorities. However, almost 70 years later, religious minorities have been reduced from 40% to less than 4%.

In Muslim-majority nations, religion is an all-pervasive force informing and undergirding every part of life. Thus, religious extremism reaches every sphere of Pakistani society, from educational institutions and legal systems to social realities.

In Muslim-majority nations, religion is an all-pervasive force informing and undergirding every part of life. Thus, religious extremism reaches every sphere of Pakistani society, from educational institutions and legal systems to social realities.

In the 1980s, General Zia al-Haqq led a program of Islamization that has profoundly shaped contemporary Pakistan. Educational curricula promoted an extreme version of Islam. Books were often overtly anti-Christian, and Christians regularly suffered humiliation from their teachers and fellow students.

Pakistan’s Constitution now requires the Islamization of existing laws, and stipulates that new legislation must be in accordance with the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The Constitution also limits non-Muslims from governmental involvement. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the Constitutional rights of minorities in the Constitution are contingent upon their conformity to the injunctions of Islam.

Religious extremism is also reflected in Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, which prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Qur’an and a mandatory death sentence for insulting Muhammad. Many Christians have been falsely accused of blasphemy, arrested, and imprisoned or killed.

Religiously motivated persecution has become so prevalent that a Pew Research Center report named Pakistan one of the five most hostile nations for religious minorities. The cases against Sawan Masih and Asia Bibi, who have each received death sentences under anti-blasphemy laws, have garnered international attention, but mob justice against the falsely accused has taken many lives. As Frank Crimi observes in a 2012 article for FrontPage Magazine, “Pakistani Muslims believe killing a blasphemous person earns a heavenly reward, a holy perk that may help explain why at least 30 Christians accused of blasphemy since 2009 have been killed by mobs of Islamist vigilantes.” Furthermore, suicide bombings in Peshawar (2013) and Lahore (2014) have killed more than 120 and have injured hundreds more.

Christian Responses

Faced with this appalling situation, how do Pakistani Christians respond? Even twenty-five years ago, a survey found that 80% of Christians felt like they were second-class citizens in Pakistan. With the ever-rising tide of persecution, coupled with severe socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement, Christians often feel hopeless about their future in Pakistan as they live in a constant state of fear, insecurity, and distrust. Amidst Muslim religious extremism, self-preservation seems to be the main goal for many Christians. National newspapers have widely reported the mass migration of Pakistani Christians to UN camps as they seek asylum in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia.

Another reaction to persecution has been protest and agitation. In May 1998, Bishop John Joseph took an extreme step and committed suicide in front of the court in Sahiwal that had handed down a death sentence to young Ayub Masih, who had been falsely accused of blasphemy. After twin suicide bombers killed 20 Christian worshippers in Youhanabad on March 15, 2015, Christians took to the streets. Police responded heavy-handedly and hundreds of Christian were arrested, beaten, and harassed.

A Better Way

Escaping and protesting are understandable, but neither desirable nor commendable. Sadly, the Christian community has not always responded to terrorism and extremism in a Christ-like manner. Fear and retaliation are not the way of the cross.

Rather, in stark contrast to Islam, Christianity preaches forgiveness. As a religion and culture, Islam often justifies revenge. However, the New Testament teaches us not to seek revenge, as vengeance and judgment belong to God alone (Roman 12:19). Christ’s unimaginable suffering and his prayer for forgiveness even for those crucifying him have always inspired Pakistani Christians to follow their Savior and forgive those who inflict violence against them.

Two examples of such courageous Christian witness stand out. Following the massacre of 15 worshippers from the Bahawalpur Church in October 2001, thousands of Muslims were attending the funeral when pastors and bishops announced that they forgive the killers. Over a decade later, one of the worst attacks on Christian worshippers took place at All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22, 2013. Two suicide bombers killed 98 and injured around 200. The response from the bereaved families was amazing. Ninety-two percent announced forgiveness for the perpetrators who had committed this heinous crime against their innocent loved ones.

Over the past two millennia, the song of forgiveness continues to resound from choirs of wounded souls, under the direction of the Crucified One. Pakistani Christians are proud to add their voice to Jesus’ Choir of the Cross.

As persecution continues to rise, Christians in Pakistan face increasingly severe challenges, despite efforts to promote dialogue and social harmony. Although Muslim extremists, to some extent, have influenced reactionary extremism in some Christians, the majority of Christians are demonstrating audacious tenacity in their faith. Even under extreme circumstances, they are determined to follow the example of the One who loves to the extreme: Jesus Christ, who loves even his enemies and gave his life for their salvation. We must follow him in our response to extremism because only extreme love can overcome extreme hatred. We invite our brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the world to stand with us in prayerful support and in the solidarity of brotherly love.

Maqsood Kamil

Maqsood Kamil serves as the Vice Principal of Gujranwala Theological Seminary in Pakistan. ScholarLeaders supported Maqsood as he earned his PhD at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in the UK. Maqsood is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

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