Minorities in the Punjab are opting for Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Peoples Party, while those in the northwest are siding with rightwing Islamic parties.
Traumatized Christians in a Lahore slum where angry Muslims torched more than 100 homes in March say Pakistan’s two largest political parties offer them the only hope of protection at this week’s general elections.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a man accused of being soft on the Taliban but tipped to win Saturday’s polls, and the main outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party both gave affected families $5,000 each in compensation. PMLN was the party in power in the Punjab, home of the largest Christian community in Pakistan. The PPP led the outgoing federal government.
While in the northwest, Christians feel religious parties offer more protection, voters in Joseph Colony say they will opt for PMLN for the provincial assembly and the PPP for the National Assembly in gratitude for their support. “They helped us cover our losses and gave Rs. 500,000 to each family. So all of us have decided to vote for them,” said factory worker Sohail Masih.
Pakistan’s 86.2 million registered voters go to the polls on Saturday to elect four provincial assemblies and 272 lawmakers to the National Assembly, where another 60 seats are earmarked for women and 10 for religious minorities. Christians cannot directly elect Christian lawmakers. They vote, like everyone else, for different parties, which in turn choose their Christian candidates, in a process criticized as “selection,” not election.
Only two percent of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 180 million is Christian. The community is poor and complains of increasing discrimination.
Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned that the risk to Pakistan’s minorities has reached crisis level. It said blasphemy and other laws are used to “violate religious freedoms and foster a climate of impunity.” Campaigners argue that blasphemy legislation, for which the maximum penalty is death, is often abused to settle personal scores and should be reformed.
Punjab has seen some of the worst cases. A Christian mother was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In the town of Gojra in 2009, a mob burned 77 houses and killed seven people after rumors that a copy of the Quran had been desecrated. Last year, a young Christian girl spent three weeks in jail after being accused of blasphemy before the case was thrown out, although she and her family have been in hiding ever since, fearing for their lives. Salmaan Taseer a leading PPP politician, a Muslim, and governor of the Punjab, who called for the blasphemy laws to be reformed, was shot dead by his bodyguard in January 2011. Almost two months later, federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was killed by the Taliban.
At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, established in downtown Lahore in 1907, Father Andrew Nisari said his congregation feared conservative political parties and favored the more palatable PMLN and PPP. “Christians are afraid of these [other] parties, therefore Christians go to liberal parties, progressive parties,” he said.
But in the northwestern city of Peshawar, which runs into strongholds of the Taliban and other Al Qaeda-linked groups, Christian candidates have aligned themselves with and sought protection from rightwing Islamic religious parties.
Pervaiz Masih was first elected to Parliament on a Jamaat-e-Islami ticket in 2002 and is again their Christian candidate on Saturday. He lives in Peshawar, which has been on the frontline of a six-year domestic Taliban insurgency, and believes the religious parties offer his community the best protection. He gives an example by recalling one incident in August 2009. “Some Christians were drinking close to a mosque in Peshawar and it was [time for] the call to prayer. When people arrived they became furious … I rushed to the site and talked to the people of Jamaat-e-Islami and convinced them to go back,” he said. “God ordered me to work here in a religious party. I am a bridge between Christians and Muslims.”
Back in Joseph Colony, few people believe that Islamists can protect them. Samuel, a medical student, says he would consider voting for a religious party if it would help Christians and minorities. But ultimately he has a more radical solution: leave Pakistan because “minorities don’t have security here.”