Bearing the Cross

Pakistan’s Christians struggle to keep the faith

A Christian woman shows a journalist a charred Bible outside her torched house in the town of Gojra in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Her home had been attacked during the 2009 mob violence in the area, in which eight Christians were killed. MOHSIN RAZA/REUTERS
A Christian woman shows a journalist a charred Bible outside her torched house in the town of Gojra in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Her home had been attacked during the 2009 mob violence in the area, in which eight Christians were killed. MOHSIN RAZA/REUTERS
01 February, 2018

THE RIDES AT LAHORE’S famous Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park open for business at around 5 pm. Hundreds of people mill around the sprawling 66-acre park all day, and the most enthusiastic of them—the children—wait for ride operators to take up their positions in small cabins, from where they run a giant Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds and fancy swirling teacups. The park is open to people from all backgrounds, but on Easter Sunday of 2016, a particularly large number of the park’s estimated 30,000 visitors were Christians.

At around 6.25 pm, most of the visitors were packed into the fairground area near Gate 5, where dozens of children had queued in front of two popular rides. Just then, between the two rides and Gate 5, a suicide bomber detonated ten kilograms of explosives packed inside his vest. The blast killed at least 72 people, and although the attackers had announced that they were targeting the Christians celebrating Easter, most of the victims were Muslim.

The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the militant organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar had also claimed the twin suicide bombings at churches in Lahore’s Youhanabad area the year before, which had killed over 20 people and sparked a violent protest in the locality that left two Muslim men dead. But there was no protest this time.

Instead, on the day of the blast, protests were being held in a different city for very different reasons. As ambulances raced, sirens screaming, through Lahore’s streets, trying to get the hundreds of injured to hospitals, around 20,000 agitators gathered in Islamabad and created a trail of destruction as they marched to the parliament with the express intent of burning it down. The demonstration marked the end of the mourning period for Mumtaz Qadri, who had been hanged for murdering Salman Taseer, a governor of Pakistan’s state of Punjab who had criticised the country’s blasphemy laws. They pitched camps and presented their list of demands, including the execution of Asia Bibi—a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, whom Taseer was killed for defending. The protesters torched a metro bus, ransacked a metro bus station, destroyed private vehicles parked on roads, breached the high-security Red Zone and surrounded the parliament before the army was called in.

Reeling from the attack on the park in Lahore, the Christian leadership’s only condemnations and consolations came mostly through either the government-approved channel of the Pakistan Ulema Council or through Facebook videos. I spoke to several of Lahore’s church leaders, who explained that they did not want to present themselves as potential targets anymore. They had strict directions from the government not to protest or hold public shows of grief or memorials for those deceased. “We were told that we would lose any guarantee of security from the state if we did,” one of the bishops told me.

FOR DECADES, THE CHRISTIAN minority of Pakistan has lived a marginalised existence. According to the theologian Duncan B Forrester’s book Forrester on Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, most Christians in Pakistan were formerly members of disadvantaged Hindu castes, and were converted by missionaries of the Catholic Church and the Church Mission Society. Today, many of them live in Christian-only villages and slums around Pakistan’s big cities, and hold jobs such as those of tenant farmers, sanitary workers and factory workers.

Over the last few years, the community has faced extreme violence at the hands of Islamic militants. A year before the attack on Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, two blasts in Lahore churches killed at least 17 people. Before that, in September 2013, twin suicide bombers killed 127 people and injured more than 250 others when they attacked a church in Peshawar.

But sporadic violence is only one among a multitude of problems faced by the country’s Christians. They live in a religiously hostile environment, where intolerance is not harboured by extremists alone.

The hostility has official licence in various regressive laws and policies. Article 19 of the country’s constitution restricts freedom of speech “in the interest of glory of Islam,” among other things. According to Article 20, freedom and practice of religion is “subject to law, public order and morality”—a provision that has been selectively used to oppress minorities. The country has laws against blasphemy, which have been used to prosecute hundreds of Christians. The laws are heavily weighed against minorities, and deem desecration of the Quran or any irreverence towards Muhammad punishable by death. As documented in the book Non-Muslims in Muslim Majority Societies, by the academics Kajsa Ahlstrand and Goran Gunnar, while the law does not require candidates for the posts of prime minister and chief justice of Pakistan to be Muslims, the oaths for the posts do—they require them to “swear solemnly that I am a Muslim and believe in the Unity and Oneness of Almighty Allah.” The absence of protections for Christians has allowed the widespread expression of communal hatred—across the country, mob violence and lynchings over allegations of blasphemy are commonplace.

Despite the extent of this persecution, or perhaps because of it, Pakistan’s Christian community has mounted a spirited struggle for its rights. From the early 1980s to the late 2000s, leaders such as the late Bishop John Joseph and the slain politician Shahbaz Bhatti have led the fight for social justice, even losing their lives in that pursuit.

But more recently, amid increasing poverty and oppression, the movement seems to be losing its bearings. While the community’s religious leadership remains reluctant to engage politically, its political leadership seems to have been subsumed by the two biggest political parties, both of whom have an Islamist orientation. As the state deprives non-Muslims of even the most basic rights, the possibilities of resistance appear dim.

SEVERAL IMPORTANT VOICES OFCHRISTIAN resistance in Pakistan came from Khushpur, a small village in the vicinity of Faisalabad district. A potholed mud track snakes for over a mile through tiny villages and sprawling fields before ending at a muddy hillock that marks the entrance to the village. Alongside donkey carts, mud troughs for animals to drink from and houses thatched with mud and straw stand red-brick structures with towering spires and crosses.

These impressive structures are emblematic of the reputation of the village. Referred to as both the Vatican and the Rome of Pakistan, Khushpur is home to about 8,000 Catholics. The village falls under the Diocese of Faisalabad, and boasts of having produced two bishops, about 40 priests and hundreds of nuns and theologians. It comes as no surprise, then, that there is active participation in matters of the Church, and a strong emphasis on Catholic values, among the people of Khushpur. Yet, more so than the Catholic presence, Khushpur is most known for once being the nerve centre of the minority-rights movement in Pakistan.

Khushpur has a long history of assistance from international missionary organisations. This, along with the efforts of some local politicians, has ensured that it is more prosperous than its neighbouring villages. Unlike them, it boasts of a telephone network, a football field, public schools, gas supply, and two tube-wells that pump fresh water. Most of these amenities were obtained in the early 2000s, through political connections and using funds available to Christian lawmakers from the village. The most prominent of these lawmakers was arguably Shahbaz Bhatti, who was also the leading figure in the minority-rights movement.

In June last year, I met Shahbaz’s family at their home in Khushpur. Sitting around a coffee table laden with tea and cookies, Shahbaz’s cousins Nadeem Akhtar Gill and Akmal Bhatti, with their uncle Akbar Bhatti, recounted the early days of the movement. Shahbaz founded an organisation called the Christian Liberation Front, or CLF, in the mid 1980s.

Nadeem recalled how their cousin, as a teenager in the late 1970s, would lock horns with his father, the headmaster of the village school and a devout Catholic, over the question of political activism. His father wanted him to shun activism, study hard and become a white-collar professional like his brothers. “The tension between them reached a point where his father forbade him to even go out to play with us,” Nadeem told me. “He wanted Shahbaz sahib to study and become a bada aadmi”—a big man. “He had no patience for the idealistic plans of an angry teenager.”

Shahbaz’s father stopped giving him pocket money in an attempt to chastise him for not giving up his dangerous ideas. But his older brothers would quietly slip him spending money to sustain the Christian Liberation Front, or CLF, an organisation Shahbaz founded in the mid 1980s.

Nadeem recalled that Baba Jalal, a wizened, well-read shopkeeper, would inform Shahbaz, who had not yet travelled outside of Khushpur, about the rampant prejudice against religious minorities in the country. However, because of his strict father, there was not much Shahbaz could do while he was in the village. It was when he went to college in Faisalabad that he finally announced that he would enter politics.

In those days, the young activists believed that a struggle for equal citizen rights for minorities was not only necessary but could bring about genuine change in the social and political attitudes of the Muslim majority towards the Christians of Pakistan. One of the reasons for this belief, the elderly Akbar chimed in, was Khushpur’s proximity to Faisalabad, a city he described as one of the most prejudiced places in Punjab. “The fact that we couldn’t use the same kitchen utensils as Muslims because we were considered impure, and that Christian students from our village would be denied admission to institutes of higher education greatly angered Shahbaz shaheed,” Akmal said.

In the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq intensified the Islamisation of Pakistan, declaring that Islam was the chief unifying factor in the divided country. Whatever burgeoning hope the young CLF activists had for uplifting the status of religious minorities quickly turned into despair, as the state pursued a regressive Salafist Islamic agenda that, according to Nadeem and Akmal, set back any gains of minorities’ struggles by a century.

Shahbaz emerged as a prominent politician after the turn of the millenium. In 2002, he joined the Pakistan Peoples Party and expanded the Christian Liberation Front to fight for equal rights for members of all minority communities. That same year, he founded the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, or APMA.

In 2008, the Pakistan Peoples Party government offered Shahbaz the post of minister for minority affairs. He became the first Christian parliamentarian to become a federal minister—his predecessors had only held ceremonial state-level posts. Shahbaz used his clout within the Benazir Bhutto administration to push for several reforms, including a ban on the government’s seizure and sale of land in places of worship belonging to minorities, as well as a 5-percent quota for minorities in public posts.

In 2010, Shahbaz began receiving death threats for attempting to amend the blasphemy laws. He was one of the most prominent actors in the Asia Bibi case. Asia Bibi, who continues to languish in prison, was convicted and sentenced to death by a district court in November 2010.

Pakistani Christian women mourn a victim of a church bombing in Lahore in March 2016. BK BANGASH/AP PHOTO

Several PPP leaders, including Salman Taseer and Sherry Rehman, spoke out in support of Asia Bibi and joined Shahbaz in raising the demand for amendments to the blasphemy law. Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in Islamabad on 4 January 2011. On 2 March the same year, two Taliban gunmen opened fire at Shahbaz’s car as he was leaving his Islamabad home. His niece rushed out of the house only to find Shahbaz dead, his body covered in blood.

Four months before his murder, Shahbaz, in an interview with the BBC, described the threats he had been receiving from extremists, and then predicted his own death. “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us,” he said. Referring to the Christian community, he added, “I will die to defend their rights.”

WHILE SHAHBAZ WAS STARTING out as an activist in his teens, another important Christian figure from Khushpur was becoming a voice for the minorities of Pakistan. Bishop John Joseph was ordained bishop of the diocese of Faisalabad in 1984—the first indigenous bishop of Indian and Pakistani Punjab. He was an “awami bishop”—a people’s bishop—Nadeem said, with a hint of pride. To these young activists from Khushpur, Joseph was an enigma. While it is a common practice for villagers to gain an education and leave the village to pursue careers in the city or use their connections with the church to get settled abroad, Joseph chose political activism to serve his people.

In her book The Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of John Joseph, the anthropologist Linda Walbridge explores in great detail the bishop’s life and his activism in the face of opposition from Christian religious institutions in Pakistan, which had stressed an apolitical engagement with their parishes since Partition.

Protestors hold a candlelit vigil after the 2011 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minorities. MOHSIN RAZA/REUTERS

According to the book, the bishop had been the face of several movements in the 1980s under the Zia-ul-Haq government, and in the 1990s under successive Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan Peoples Party governments. In 1992, when the government proposed that every citizen’s identity card indicate their religion, the proposal was rejected outright by all religious minorities, with the Shia community opposing it most vociferously. Joseph decided to go on a week-long hunger strike in the centre of Faisalabad, during which he was constantly surrounded by Christians from various denominations, singing psalms. The protest sent the government a clear message that minorities would not stay passive in the face of discriminatory laws, and the proposal was eventually withdrawn. This move earned Joseph praise from all religious minorities, and the slogan “Bishop John zindabad” was shouted in protests organised by Shias.

Walbridge also described the bishop’s work among residents of kachchi abadis, or shantytowns, where he fought for their right to housing and worked towards building trust between Christians and their Muslim neighbours. However, it was the issue of the blasphemy laws that would thrust the bishop to the frontlines of a struggle culminating in a horrendous tragedy.

On 6 May 1998, the bishop travelled to the city of Sahiwal to deliver a sermon. Towards the end of the prayer meeting, people gathered around him to inquire about the fate of Ayub Masih, who had been sentenced to death for committing blasphemy by the Sahiwal district court a week earlier. Joseph told them that he had managed to file an appeal in the Lahore High Court but did not think the lawyer could get Masih off.

According to the eyewitness account of Patras Masih, the bishop’s driver, Joseph announced to the congregation that if there was no bloodshed, if there was no sacrifice, the black law would never be repealed. A few hours later, Joseph asked Masih to drive him to the courthouse where Ayub had been sentenced to death. Joseph got out of the car, and, standing in front of the court building, shot himself in the head.

On 7 May 1998, a sea of mourners gathered in the compound of St Thomas High School in Khushpur. News of the bishop’s suicide had travelled and, overnight, thousands of Christians from all over the country had made their way to the village. The school compound was the only space big enough to accommodate that many people. It was the tenth day of Muharram, a day of mourning for Shias—but that day, the Christians of Khushpur, too, carried out a traditional mourning procession, some even flagellating themselves as they went. Elderly residents of Khushpur tut-tutted recalling the spectacle, emphasising that mourning by flagellation finds no place in their religion, but conceded that they, too, had been part of the procession—their sorrow was too great.

Young volunteers, most of them CLF members, tried to maintain order amid the thousands of mourners, and security personnel pushed through the crowd to make way for the coffin being carried to the bishop’s house, from where the funeral procession would head towards the graveyard. Pastor Sadiq from Multan, who was then a deacon at a Pentecostal church, had arrived in Khushpur with prominent members of his church and a Christian member of the provincial assembly from south Punjab. “There was an argument at his funeral,” Sadiq told me. “The residents of Khushpur wanted to bury his body there because it was his native village. Some people from Faisalabad, however, demanded that he be buried in the city, amid loud protest from the church and diocese.”

The young pastor and a companion climbed onto the rim of a well in the midst of the school compound to photograph the funeral procession. Sadiq recalled that as the crowd parted to make way for the CLF volunteers carrying the bishop’s body, the young men suddenly changed their course. They ran, coffin still on their shoulders, towards a van in a small alley next to the school, loaded the coffin into it and drove off at top speed towards Faisalabad.

Akram Gill, another cousin of Shahbaz’s, told me that the Pakistan Muslim League government had instructed its Christian leader Peter John Sahotara to ensure that the funeral be a quiet affair. It wanted Joseph to be buried in Khushpur rather than in Faisalabad—since the former was a small village, they believed it would get less media attention. The government had also sent police to the village to ensure the funeral went without a hitch. “But we were not going to let that happen,” Akram said. “The spark that John Joseph had lit would have to blow up and we made sure it did.”

The CLF activists had kept planks of wood in the van so they could create a makeshift bridge over the nearest canal, and avoid a main bridge which the police were sure to use while chasing them. They entered Faisalabad city through a nondescript road and transported the bishop’s body to the Cathedral of St Peter.

Bishop John Joseph was the face of several minorities’- rights movement in Pakistan in the 1980s. AP PHOTO

The arrangements for Joseph’s funeral had been decided on in advance. Television footage from the cathedral that day shows a large number of nuns and priests preparing for the funeral amid loud wailing from the people who had come to pay their last respects. However, the number of mourners had grown too large for the priests and volunteers to handle, and the crowd spilled onto streets surrounding the church.

Emotions were running high by this time, and a Christian youth allegedly tore down a sign carrying a Quranic verse—he was later charged with blasphemy. A mob of Muslims barged into Christiantown, a Catholic-majority ghetto of Faisalabad, and burned down houses and shops. Meanwhile, the mourners waited till the bishop was buried and then took out a huge procession in protest against the blasphemy laws. Over the next week, the protests would spill into every city in the country and culminate in a violent backlash from the state.

Church leaders of every denomination in the country called on their followers to join in the protests. They added that the demonstrations should be well organised and peaceful, warning that the memory of John Joseph should not be sullied by violence. But in Lahore, as over a thousand protesters landed on the famous Mall Road, it became clear that it would not be easy to control the action. The marchers beat their chests and shouted, “Bishop, tere khoon se inquilab aayega” (your sacrifice will bring a revolution) and “ye C-ian, B-ianband karo” (end the Sections 295 C, 295 B—of the law pertaining to blasphemy). Bishop Samuel Azariah, who was leading hundreds of members of his congregation in the protest, told me that a young man threw a stone at a glass window of a building on Mall Road. “Then it spiralled out of control.” The police arrested over a hundred protesters for vandalism, but the crowds spilled onto other roads—Jail Road and Main Boulevard—and by the time the sun had set nearly 500 protesters had been rounded up and jailed.

Reports of similar protests and arrests came from Karachi, Faisalabad, Multan and several smaller cities, and the church leaders decided that they needed to call another meeting. “We realised that we needed to change our strategy and that calls for repealing the law would only be met with a backlash and severe threat from the Muslim hardliners and the state,” Azariah said. “We decided that from now on, we would only ask for the law to be amended.”

SINCE THE DEATH OF JOSEPH, the Christian religious leadership has mostly shied away from political matters. Even before Joseph, the community’s powerful religious institutions had been reluctant to engage politically, which blunted the minority-rights movement. These institutions were set up during colonial times by international missionary bodies, and were once flush with funds and resources. After Partition, the foreign benefactors began moving out, and locals assumed positions as clergy. Today, these institutions seem to be in a state of decay. The village of Montgomerywala, also on the outskirts of Faisalabad, is an embodiment of this problem.

Compared to the tiny villages dotting Faisalabad’s vicinity, Montgomerywala has had a history relatively free of conflict. Apart from a handful of squabbles over land and several scandals involving Christians marrying Muslims, the Christian villagers here do not recall having strained relations with their Muslim neighbours, and insist that they have always felt safe here.

Despite a ban on loudspeakers, the churches here continue to use them to make announcements and broadcast Sunday sermons. The sound of azan does not reach here.

An Anglican church towers over the village like a medieval castle, and the number of smaller, but prominent, churches here exceeds eight. Near the entrance to the village stand two rickety shops, both bearing Quranic verses on the shutters. These belong to the only two Muslim families that reside in the village, which had a population of a little over 25,000 as recorded in the 1997 census, the most recent source of such data. Spread over 4,125 acres, this is the largest Christian-only village in the country, a young priest dressed in white robes told me. But, he added, like its crops, which are suffering from increasing ground salinity, the village is slowly withering away.

Many of Pakistan’s Christian-majority villages—Martinpur, Stuntzabad, Youngsonabad, Batemanabad, Khushpur—took on the names of a local missionary patriarch who had helped settle them. Montgomerywala was named after an archdeacon of the Church Mission Society who was based in Gojra city, the young priest told me.

Duncan Forrester wrote that the converts had moved into these villages in large numbers towards the end of the nineteenth century to become tenant farmers, or even labourers, but with favourable terms of employment. The CMS priests had followed the model they had adopted in the urban centres—creating strong establishments to provide healthcare and education—and stressed the need for high-quality education for the new settlers.

After Partition, the foreign clergy focussed on preparing locals to take up their responsibilities, which included church and village administration affairs. These foreign missionaries had opened schools and hospitals, and agriculturalists among them had introduced the latest farming techniques. Many of them continued to live in these villages for several years after Partition, but security concerns kept growing and the general condition of the villages worsened—the cultivatable land was shrinking, farming was becoming unfeasible and Muslims from other places were increasingly buying property in these villages. This meant that the foreigners would have to leave, and with them the donations and money from abroad.

Some institutions have survived while others have been lost. Montgomerywala is home to a few large educational institutes that cater to hundreds of students, including some who travel from other villages to attend. These include the Government CMS High School and Primary School, as well as the Sacred Heart schools for girls and boys.

Pastor Sarfaraz Masih of Assemblies of God church listed a number of prominent Christian lawmakers and government officers who have studied at these institutes—the serving human-rights and minorities affairs minister, Tahir Khalil Sandhu, and the former national assembly member Peter John Sahotra among them. However, Sarfaraz lamented, none of these big names ever returned to provide any leadership or vision to the people of Montgomerywala. Today, the villagers are poorer than they have ever been, he said.

In the 1970s, under Zulfiqar Bhutto the government nationalised many schools to make them accessible to the poor. It mostly targeted Urdu-medium church-run schools that already catered to lower-income households, and most Christians complain that, as a result, the standard of education at these schools declined. The church retained control of the higher-end schools—the English-medium convents and grammar schools—and these remained inaccessible to the poor.

Many of the rulers of Pakistan have been groomed in these church-run schools. Those who studied at the famed St Anthony’s High School in Lahore include the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the current chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, and the assassinated governor Salman Taseer. The late prime minister Benazir Bhutto attended the Murree Convent, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is the current co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party, attended Karachi Grammar School and St Patrick High School.

In July, I met Chaudhry Nihal Dar, the lamberdar, or headman, of Montgomerywala, a position passed on to him from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. For many families, cultivating the land is no longer an option, he told me. The declining quality of soil and higher costs of fertiliser and water are some of the reasons for this. Even if they lease out the land to someone, it fetches 20,000 Pakistani rupees per acre over six months. Since there has been no development here in the last few decades, there are no jobs for young people, he explained. “Most girls from our village go into nursing,” Dar said. “Many of them get into good nursing colleges in the Punjab, but those who go to Sindh usually end up marrying Muslims, abandoning the village and tainting their families’ honour.”

The poorer families of the village look up to the lamberdar for sustenance and to find suitable buyers for their land. “It is unfortunate that the church of Pakistan couldn’t play a charitable role here the way foreign CMS missionaries would,” he said.

Pakistani police beat a protestor taking part in a procession carried out after the death of John Joseph. AP PHOTO

The CMS Church used to take care of widows and provide scholarships to bright students who wanted to study further in Faisalabad. Now being tended to by Pakistani clergy, the church seems to have acquired new priorities. Instead of community work, the church has been spending on the construction of a new building for the past six years. “We have spent upwards of 250 million rupees on the building in the last six years,” a priest from the church told me. “The funds came from residents of Montgomerywala now settled abroad, and the local parish.”

Although his Assemblies of God church attracts a sizeable congregation in a solid construction spread over a quarter of an acre, “their loyalties still lie with the CMS church,” Sarfaraz complained. This is a pattern observable across the colonies settled by the missionaries, he added. Even if they prefer a different denomination’s prayer services, parish members have an unswerving allegiance towards the founding church. They present to it their tithes, ask its priests to preside over local courts and give it generous offerings. As a result, in Montgomerywala, villagers continue to pour in money towards the church building, even as their neighbours approach starvation.

That there is a lack of community-building is clear. The people vote for whoever the priest tells them to vote for, no questions asked, Sarfaraz said. “The result is before you—a once-metaphoric citadel of Christians in Pakistan, slowly crumbling away and being taken over by Muslims, while the founding church asks for additional funds to raise its already eight-foot boundary wall.”

AT AROUND 11.30 AM on 28 July last year, a dozen or so young men were gathered at a small general store at the entrance of Youhanabad, Lahore, right next to the office of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s union council chairman. There was a kind of feral excitement in the air as they urged the elderly shopkeeper to turn up the volume of a small ancient television at the shop. One man turned to another standing next to him and asked if his brother had picked up mithai from a sweets shop a few blocks away. “He’s there right now,” was the response. “We are waiting for the verdict.”

As news of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s conviction for corruption and subsequent disqualification from the prime minister post under Article 62(f) of the Constitution of Pakistan flashed across the screen, a unanimous roar rose among those who were watching. The crowd grew bigger by the minute, gathering vendors who left their fruit carts unattended, shoeshine boys clutching their tools and polish bags and women who had been walking down the street holding each others’ hands. “Today is a happy day for the Christians of Youhanabad,” the elderly Muslim shopkeeper said in a quiet tone. “Of course, I am ecstatic because Imran Khan was right ... the corrupt ganjas”—“baldies,” as the Sharif brothers are sometimes referred to—“are out!”

The reaction to the news was telling, since Youhanabad is the constituency of the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), which won the provincial election with a landslide majority from this area only four years ago. But since 2015, when two churches of the area were attacked, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf seems to be gaining an upper hand.

In the absence of an independent political leadership, the fate of Pakistan’s religious minorities has been in the hands of its two biggest political parties: Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, or PTI. Amid political one-upmanship, Christians continue to face violence and state repression, while their issues and concerns go unaddressed. Youhanabad—one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods of Lahore and the largest Christian settlement in Pakistan—is one such site of political wrangling.

Most of the residents of Youhanabad trace their lineage from saipis, or peasants, who worked on lands owned by Hindus and Sikhs. After Partition, Muslim migrants were allotted those lands, and did not allow the saipis to continue working on the lands. The displaced peasants moved to the cities where they became part of the urban poor and squatted in the peripheries. The neighbourhood was built and planned by the Catholic Church in 1961 for these internally displaced peasants. The church not only bought the 40 hectares on which the colony was to be built, but also planned for it to have wide roads and all possible amenities. Today, however, Youhanabad is poverty-stricken and people lack access to basic facilities.

On 15 March 2015, two bombs ripped through two of the largest churches in the neighbourhood—Christ Church and St John’s Roman Catholic Church—while Sunday services were underway, killing over 17 people and leaving over 100 injured. What made headlines, however, was the aftermath of the twin suicide bombings, in which two Muslim men, taken into custody within hours of the blast by the Elite Force—a unit specialising in counterterrorism operations—were pulled out of a security vehicle and brutally lynched by a mob, which then proceeded towards the metro bus station right in front of the entrance to Youhanabad and vandalised it. Since then, any condemnations of the bomb attack—from members of any community—are usually preceded or followed by a display of horror at how the people of Youhanabad reacted to them.

The government and the media, too, focussed on the violent reaction to the blasts. The day after the bombings, the interior minister described the vandalism of the metro bus station as “the worst kind of terrorism.” Photojournalists and television crews sent to capture images of the attack focussed instead on the lynchings, beaming horrific images of mangled body parts and burned bones across the country. What followed was perhaps the largest witch-hunt the city has experienced in the last four years.

Law enforcement agencies were given permission to force entry into homes at any time of the day and pick up everyone they could identify from the photographs and videos shot by media persons. “They went beyond that,” an elderly Muslim shopkeeper from the area told me. “I mean, you can’t memorise facial features of hundreds of people, so the police went around picking up anyone they thought would be involved in the lynching. They didn’t bother the Muslim residents though.” He recalled that in the weeks following the attacks, most families in the area, even those unaffected by the blasts, left their homes.

Within days, the police, egged on by pressure from political parties and the provincial government, picked up over a hundred young men from Youhanabad and put them behind bars. The Express Tribune newspaper reported that the police had detained 17 relatives and neighbours of nine suspects identified in the footage and pictures available in the media. They were released with the help of political figures from the neighbourhood.

Ishtiaq Gill and his brother Tariq Javed were among those political figures. Javed was the first Christian chairman of a union council in the area, a post equivalent to a mayor, and had won a provincial election years earlier. Ishtiaq also became the chairman of a union council, after running as an independent candidate in the local government election held the following year. Both of them have connections with the ruling PML(N).

“The way police went about picking up boys and relatives of suspects was reflective of how Christians are treated in our society,” Ishtiaq told me in June. “These are a people who had just lost family members or were taking care of relatives injured in the blasts. Dozens of wailing mothers and fathers would visit our office begging us to help them get their sons released.”

It was important for the brothers to use their clout in the PML(N) to get these men released, because many people in the area suspected that Javed was hand-in-glove with the police.

The two brothers have cordial relations with the chief minister, who had appointed Javed’s wife, Shazia Tariq, as a member of the provincial assembly of the region on a reserved seat for women. “We would visit the police station and present assurances to get these boys released,” Ishtiaq said. “We got dozens of them released till Joseph Francis, who runs a legal-aid NGO, filed a petition in court demanding to know what had become of the men detained by the police.” Ironically, his petition itself hampered the release of the other men. According to Ishtiaq, once the court admitted the petition for hearing, the police were bound to present a challan for the physical remand of the remaining men they had detained—thus making their detentions formal. “After that, we couldn’t help them anymore.”

On the day of the blasts, the media had arrived a few hours after the lynching. When television reporters interviewed Javed, he took a hard line and said, “Not only will we ensure that those behind the lynching are hanged, but we will help the police identify the culprits as well.”

This statement lost Javed the local government election by a margin of 180 votes. The supporters of the PTI candidate, Asif Sohail Khokar, played and replayed the interview at his corner meetings, and managed to convince the people that anyone who supported the PML(N) could not be trusted. Khokar built his campaign around the PML(N) government’s response to the blasts and the lynching. The PML(N)’s politicians had created an atmosphere of hatred against people of Youhanabad, many of whom complained of being beaten up in the Muslim-majority town of Nishtar and its surrounding neighbourhoods.

The casket of a victim of the 2015 church bombing in Lahore being carried to an ambulance. K.M CHAUDARY/AP PHOTO

The communal sentiment around the arrests following the lynching reached a fever pitch when the deputy district public prosecutor offered to help the arrested suspects secure bail if they converted to Islam. Irfan Masih, one of the suspects, had reportedly retorted that he was ready to be hanged if the prosecutor converted to Christianity.

Despite this dynamic playing out in the local elections, neither of the parties’ leaders openly admit to mobilising people around communal issues. Though he campaigned around the government’s response to the lynching, Khokar told me that his job is not to meddle with an issue that is sub-judice, but rather to serve the people through solving problems such as the lack of safe drinking water and the need for a new graveyard. “I am confident that the PML(N) will not dare contest an election from Youhanabad in the general election,” he said. “They have no support here.” According to Khokar, the PTI have better knowledge of the pulse of the people, refrain from stoking communal tensions and focus on good governance.

Javed agreed that organising around “communal issues” could not get a politician—even one from Youhanabad—anywhere. “We need to get out of our hidey holes and join mainstream politics,” he told me. “The days of organising around minorities’ issues are over.”

As the leaders increasingly shy away from minorities’ issues, there is a growing demand for electoral reforms. After its founding, Pakistan had a system of separate electorates for minorities. Under the system, religious minorities could only vote in elections for reserved seats, and were barred from voting in elections for unreserved seats. This system continued up to 1956, after which it was overturned. It was resumed under Zia-ul-Haq in 1985. Zahid Nazir, who runs a forum that tries to bring minority-rights’ activists together on certain issues, said the problem with separate electorates was that because Christians could not vote for unreserved seats, the legislatures would effectively ignore minorities’ problems. After much campaigning by Christian leaders and civil-society organisations, the system was, once again, revoked by Musharraf.

The Musharraf government then introduced a joint-electorate system. This system allows all communities to vote in the general assembly elections, and once the elections are over, each party, depending upon the number of seats it has won, gets its share of seats reserved for leaders from minority communities. As Nazir S Bhatti, the president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, stated in a memorandum, the big political parties then pick the leaders who would represent the minority communities according to the parties’ own whims and fancies. The memorandum also alleged that these seats are being bought by leaders through “bribes in millions of rupees,” and that the system gives minority communities no say in who represents their interests.

The memorandum demands the right for religious minorities to vote for their representatives in reserved seats, but also to participate in general elections—a new system that is being called “dual electorates.” Khokar of Youhanabad said the PTI, too, is on board with the demand for dual electorates.

But some leaders who have already won favour with big political parties are opposing the initiative. Tariq Javed argued that dual electorates defeated the purpose of opting for joint electorates. That religious minorities would have to campaign for votes across the province placed an unnecessary burden on them, he said. “We cannot be a part of the political mainstream without joining large political parties,” Javed told me. “People who argue otherwise do not want to be a part of the mainstream, they do not even recognise themselves as Pakistanis.”

Under the joint-electorate system, however, minority candidates who do not have the support of big political parties have pretty much no chance to win elections. “Religious Minorities in Elections—Equal in Law, Not in Practice,” a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, covering minorities’ voting patterns in 2013, gave an example. In 2008, Mahesh Kumar Malani, a Hindu candidate of the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians, contested the election from a national assembly seat in 2008 and polled 28,411 votes but lost. In 2013, he was not awarded a party ticket so he ran as an independent candidate and received only 85 votes.

Pakistani Muslim demonstrators shout slogans during a protest in Lahore over alleged blasphemous remarks by a Christian man in March 2013. ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Minorities clearly feel underrepresented in this system. According to a pre-poll survey conducted by the HRCP in Youhanabad, a majority of the area’s residents did not believe that Muslim candidates could adequately represent their interests. Moreover, according to the report, the people “think that the Christian candidates nominated by the political parties for the reserved seats are not true representatives of the community.”

This was particularly true in the aftermath of the Youhanabad attacks. As cars bringing Tahir Khalil Sandhu, the provincial minister for human rights and minority affairs, and Kamran Michael, the federal minister for human rights, arrived in front of the Catholic church, several people in the street threw shoes at their cars, and some even stones.

“How dare they show their faces in our neighbourhood,” thundered an elderly man who had lost a son in the attacks. “These sellouts are the enemies of Christians in Pakistan!”

Michael hails from Bahar Colony in Kot Lakhpat, ten kilometres south of Youhanabad and perhaps the second most populous Christian neighbourhood in Pakistan. He lives there in a small gated neighbourhood called Dilkushah Gardens. His close affiliation with the PML(N) since 2001 has helped him get appointed as a member of national and provincial assemblies and the Senate. And his politics, some of his neighbours argue, closely mirror those of Peter John Sahotra, who was elected to the National Assembly several times under the separate electorate system and was also affiliated with the PML(N). “Well, Sahotra was a puppet of the anti-Christian Pakistan Muslim League and an opportunist, who resettled in the UK when Musharraf came to power,” an elderly shopkeeper who has a store close to Dilkushah Gardens told me.

The problem with Kamran Michael is that he never bothered to organise along communal lines or address specific problems that minorities face, the shopkeeper said. In the local government elections held last year, despite a close competition from independent candidates in the area, the PML(N)’s candidate, Chaudhry Yousaf Javed, won and became the chairman of a union council. Michael went door-to-door to campaign for Javed and took vote pledges from the stage of Anwar Fazal, a popular evangelist, with a dedicated parish of thousands of people.

Fazal has worked in diverse professions, including working short stints in the Pakistani film industry. He became famous through his religious organisation Eternal Life Ministries of Pakistan, or ELM, which promises physical healing through divine intervention, and for a television channel named after his son, Isaac TV.

ELM has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The entrance to the street where Fazal’s church and channel studios are located is blocked by security barriers, with men dressed in black and wearing SSG Commando badges standing guard. Towards one end of the building is a large table where people stand in three queues to hand over envelopes and cash to church cashiers as tithes and offerings. Every Wednesday, thousands of people gather in an open compound adjacent to the church building for Fazal’s prayer and worship service, where Michael makes regular appearances.

In turn, Fazal often accompanies Michael when he travels abroad to apprise the global community of the state of minorities at large in Pakistan. The two, many residents of Bahar Colony claim, frequently gloss over the plight of Christians in their country. “Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand have told us—and my own brother-in-law, who was deported from Thailand, confirmed that Michael and Fazal gave statements in various meetings with the UNHCR and Thai government that most of the asylum seekers do not have legitimate grounds to seek asylum,” Zahid Nazir, who runs an activists’ forum and is a neighbour of Michael in Dilkushah Gardens, told me.

The last decade has been brutal for Christians in Pakistan, said the elderly shopkeeper while listing some major incidents of violence off the top of his head. The so-called representatives of Christians in Pakistan were nowhere to be seen in the aftermath of those incidents, he continued. Because those leaders cannot promise security for Christians in Pakistan, he added, a large wave of migration to asylum camps abroad had occurred in the last decade or so. “If I had the money or the means to get out of here, I’d gladly leave too.”