Stepping gingerly out of the car, the anxious expressions on the faces of those we met said it all. Were we friends or foes?
Behind the row of parishioners – the men in their drab-coloured salwar kameez, the women swathed in drapes – lay the reason for their anxiety.
Their homes had been reduced to smouldering ruins when armed extremists attacked in this quiet village of Korian.
But the people of Korian were not the worst sufferers. On August 1 last year, barely a day after the violence in this small Punjab village, the nearby city of Gojra came under fire when the extremists returned in an attack of far greater magnitude. Targeting the city’s Christian quarter, homes, shops and other businesses were devastated, and amid shouts and screams the inhabitants ran for their lives.
The severity of the attack was brought home by the deaths of eight people, including a family who were trapped in their home when it was set on fire. Among the dead was 10-year-old Umia Almas and her brother, Musa, aged just seven.
Pakistan’s 2.5 million Christian are no strangers to acts of violence and intimidation, a point that especially applies to this region of Punjab. As bonded labourers, road sweepers and other low-grade workers, the faithful have little or no means of defending themselves.
But what made the violence in Gojra different was the scarcely paralleled media coverage it provoked, both nationally and internationally. As local Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad made clear at the time, it drew widespread attention to the plight of a community who feel forgotten and voiceless. Maybe at last things could change.
Pakistani Christians tempted to think this way were in for a cruel blow when on July 19 two brothers, both baptised as Catholics, were gunned down while under police escort outside a crowded police court in the centre of Faisalabad. Violence swept the brothers’ home district of Waris Pura, where churches were attacked.
Speaking immediately afterwards from Faisalabad, Bishop Coutts’s comments to me made clear the sense of disappointment and shock.
“We are demanding justice,” he said, “the arrest of the killer. The men were killed in public with a lot of people present as witnesses as well as three police officers in attendance.”
“It should not be difficult to apprehend the person who killed them. We have got to keep putting pressure in the search for justice. The authorities would be quite happy to close the whole thing and let the matter drop.”
The two brothers who died, Rashid Emmanuel, 32, and his 30-year-old brother Sajid, were accused of writing a leaflet denigrating Mohammed.
Were the men to be guilty of such a crime, they would be in direct breach of the country’s “blasphemy laws”, which form part of Pakistan’s Penal Code. Of particular relevance are Articles 295B and 295C whereby offences against the Koran are punishable by life imprisonment and acts “defiling the sacred name of the Prophet Mohammed” carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or death.
Blasphemy laws by themselves do not necessarily legislate a system of oppression and persecution but the abuse of them almost certainly does. It was a blasphemy law allegation that sparked the violence in Korian and Gojra.
Referring to the tragedy in the courts in Faisalabad nearly a year later, Bishop Coutts made it clear that the two brothers almost certainly had nothing to do with the leaflet. Indeed, a formal charge had thus far not been brought against them.
But the men died because in the minds of extremists they were guilty and such was the severity of the crime that “summary justice” was required, regardless of what stage the case had reached in the courts.
And at a time when the rule of law and the system of government is under increasingly strain in Pakistan, the increasing abuse of 295B and 295C is of growing concern, not least for Christians.
While I was in Pakistan, taking part in a fact-finding and project assessment trip with Aid to the Church in Need, it was apparent that extremism – always a problem in the modern-day life of the country – was worsening.
More worrying still, “summary justice” according to the blasphemy law was cited as the tactic of choice among militants determined to stamp out “anti-Islamic practices”.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, made the point succinctly when he said: “We are experiencing a Talibanisation of Islam. Even in the last two or three years it has happened. It is not so much that they are becoming more religious; rather, that they are becoming more intolerant of others. There is a big difference.”
Every person I had a chance to speak to at any length said much the same thing: that extremism was on the rise and that the situation for Christians – and other minorities – had demonstrably worsened within the last few years.
It is not just to be seen in the obvious ways: increasing use of conservative Islamic dress, especially among women, a radicalised youth and more widespread Islamic phrases and ideas entering common speech. The radicalisation also extends to popular entertainment. One priest explained that extremists ripped out a western video being played in a coach covering long distances and forced the driver to destroy it by driving over it.
The inculturation of extremist Islam is matched by a strategic vision among radicals. Clergy explained that central and southern Punjab, including Faisalabad, is deliberately being targeted by extremists. The region’s relative poverty and lack of education are seen as making it “ripe” for radicalisation. All of this is bad news for a region with a high concentration of Christians.
But the biggest problem of all is the growing presence of militia, armed groups with links to extremist mosques and madrassas. One of their tasks is to ensure that intolerance of non-Islamic practices is followed up as necessary by acts of violent retribution.
Such militant groups have been linked to the violence in Gojra and elsewhere.
There are widespread claims that extremism has infiltrated the country’s security services explaining the alleged poor police response to threats of violence, such as the Gojra incident, and the suspicious deaths of Christians and others held in custody.
In the face of a growing tide of extremism, evident at so many levels of society, moderate Muslims have added their voice to those of Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs and other minorities asking what can be done.
There is widespread consensus that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws represent a threat to civil society. Repealing them would remove the fig-leaf of respectability for those who falsely invoke them to carry out what amount to heinous crimes. It would also send out a signal to the militants that the majority of Pakistanis – including many Muslims – stand firm behind the original concept of Pakistan as a secular country, as envisaged in 1947 by the country’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
In announcing a special appeal in support of Christians in Pakistan this month, Aid to the Church in Need is renewing calls for the repeal of the blasphemy law. This builds on the foundation work laid by the European Parliament which in May passed a resolution calling for the law to be reviewed.
But the charity goes further in recognising that changing the law will not by itself solve the problem. The issues run much deeper: it is about the changing face of Pakistan’s Muslim society and the place of minorities within that society.
What is needed is for the suffering Church in Pakistan to receive a signal from the rest of us saying that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their time of distress. And there is much cause for hope: with increasing numbers of seminarians, more catechists, greater Christian presence in the media and the appointment of new bishops, the Church in Pakistan is responding to persecution by renewing itself in faith and action.
By reaching out to them, we discover that they have much to teach us about what it means to be Catholic Christians. For me, this was summed up memorably when we met Almas Hamid, who lost seven members of his family in the violence in Gojra of August last year. There are threats against his life and so we met him in a safe-house. We did not know how he would react when he saw us. At the end of our conversation he said: “It is because of our Christian faith that we have suffered in this way. The blood of our family will bear fruit for the Church in the future.”
John Pontifex is Aid to the Church in Need UK’s head of press and information. For more information, visit Acnuk.org/pakistan