Where Christianity faces a fight to survive

A recent convert from Christianity to Islam, Bashir Masi knew nothing of his new faith.

He could not describe a single tenet of Islam, nor remember the Qalma, the Muslim declaration of faith, nor name his own children, who have adopted Muslim names.

He, his wife Amna and their six children, converted to Islam 15 days ago. “We are happy now we are Muslim,” said Mr Masi, 45. “It is a great religion.”

The Masis’s conversion is typical of the vulnerability of Christians in Pakistan, many of whom live under the threat of persecution, death and who have suffered waves of violence directed against them and their churches.

In February about 400 people attacked and burnt a church in the southern city of Sukkur after accusations that a local Christian had burned pages from the Koran.

After a similar allegation last November a Muslim mob wielding axes and sticks set fire to three churches, a dozen houses, three schools, a dispensary, a convent and two parsonages.

The attacks were the worst on Pakistan’s Christian community since 2002, when Muslim fanatics led an assault on a church with grenades on Christmas Day. Three young girls were killed in that attack, at Chianwala, 40 miles north of Lahore.

The Masis were “invited” to convert by the local Muslim town mayor, Nazim Sahib as they call him, who doubles as the owner of the basic compound they had shared with their extended family.

Since converting, the family, which comes from Pakistan’s underclass of sweepers, has moved to a better house, been given a better sweeping job and been ostracised by other members of the 30-strong Christian community, including their family.

Their village is part of a sprawling suburb of Mingora in Swat in northern Pakistan, an area where an intolerant and doctrinaire interpretation of Islam is increasingly popular.

They moved there over three years ago from Sialkot in the Punjab in search of work.

Some 90 per cent of the 15 million Christians in Pakistan trace their ancestry to the “untouchable” Hindu Chuhra caste from Sialkot, where mass conversions began during the 19th century under British rule.

Mr Masi’s ancestors probably converted to Christianity to improve their lot; now he is banking on another change of faith in the hope of transforming his family’s fortunes.

However, Group Capt Cecil Chaudhry, Pakistan’s self-appointed defender of the faith, contended that such conversions were not as innocent as depicted.

“It is more through fear that conversions have taken place. Our community is poor but it is not easy to break their faith,” he said. “After all the recent attacks the community is living in fear.”

Group Capt Chaudhry, twice decorated from Pakistan’s wars against India, knows something of anti-Christian discrimination personally. He was passed over for promotion by the Islamist-favouring dictator General Zia-ul-Huq.

He now heads several organisations championing Christian rights and lobbies the government of President Pervez Musharraf to change legislation that is prejudiced against Christians.

He has reacted strongly against the leadership since the president buckled under pressure from Islamists and gave up plans to change the way in which a controversial blasphemy law was implemented to discriminate against Christians. “Musharraf has still some way to go – he talks but says nothing of substance,” he said.

Group Capt Chaudhry has also battled, with partial success, to do away with an electoral system that separates Muslim and Christian voters and candidates that means that Christians are never properly represented in a constituency.

In Afghanistan earlier this year, a man faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity from Islam before international pressure led to him being freed.

In Pakistan, conversion is technically legal but those who do convert are dubbed “apostates” and often killed. Christian officials describe a large community of “secret Christians” made up of some government officials and prominent people who have converted to Christianity.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Telegraph, UK
Apr. 28, 2006
Isambard Wilkinson, in Mingora

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 28, 2006.
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