Pakistan got a black eye by instituting blasphemy laws and by a public outcry over its corresponding results. In effect a neighbor can cry out an accusation that you have blasphemed the prophet or defiled the Quran. This in minutes can escalate into mob rule resulting in a burned down house or death. I asked a businessman his greatest concerns: “My own safety, that of my family and my business,” was his immediate response. Fear over being accused, be one a Christian, Hindu or even a Muslim, is so profound as to affect how people live.
Recent cases stymied and stalled by Pakistani courts, legal encumbrances and political feet shuffling adds to this image of a county run by Islamic zealots killing and locking up Christians, Hindus and Muslims. It has also become an ax of destruction for those with a more criminal intent, who use this as a way to get at an opponent.
Days before I arrived, Asif Masih, a young illiterate and mentally challenged 16-year old was mobbed when, what was reported to have been a rival in the business of garbage collection, accused him of burning pages of the Quran.
Why this hot bed of virulent anti-Christian venom?
The laws of blasphemy rise out of the 1980s as the government attempted to curtail the activities of the heretical Ahmadi minority. They identify as being Muslim but follow the teachings of Mirza Ahmadi (1835-1908) who had claimed to be the Mjujaddid or “renewer” of Islam, its promised messiah. Inadvertently the blasphemy laws that were constructed to deal with this Islamic heresy now gives opportunity for people to get rid of a neighbor just by resorting to accusing them of blasphemy. In recent years 1300 have been charged with blasphemy and 62 murdered. Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, killed March 2, 2011, had openly criticized the blasphemy laws.
Pakistan, bordering northwest India – relatively new, formed in 1947 – is the only country formed in the name of Islam and became a homeland for Indian Muslims. The splitting of the West and East Pakistan, formed out of India in 1947, eventually resulted in the West and East breaking off, with the East forming Bangladesh a move that triggered some 3 million being displaced. Today’s Pakistan was originally formed out of India as West Pakistan.
A large population of over 210 million, it sits alongside India – two major tectonic plates, rubbing from time to time, triggering explosive possibilities as both are equipped with Atomic power, a tenuous relationship complicated by competing claims over Kashmir. Pakistan boasts of the sixth largest standing army in the world, whose military has on and off, taken political charge of the country. Increasing its complexity is it border with Afghanistan and the accompany rise of radical Islam under the Taliban who birthed the Al-Qaida and then ISIS, a hornet’s nest made more complex by the USA’s invasion of Iraq.
In this land where Islam dominates in numbers, and controls by constitution, there is a people of Christian faith, resilient and growing even given the debilitating roadblocks. Sunni Muslims number are 180 million, Christians 4.5 million, including 1.1 million Evangelicals and the Church of Pakistan, a 1970 merger of Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians (Church of Scotland), United Methodists and Lutherans.
Life is complex for Christians. While blasphemy is the most obvious of life-threatening issues, life is made even more tenuous as citizens must carry an ID card that includes a category for “religion.” Applying for a job when “Christian” appears diminishes the chance of getting the job.
Fifteen of us met in Lahore, over tea, seven Christian, one Hindu, the others Islamic scholars. For a few hours we exchanged ideas, disagreed and openly examined the clash and conflict so obvious in this their country. Globally, conversations on the growing impact of Islam will vary, depending on the country. In Sweden, soon after Islamic terrorism manifest itself in bombs and killings, a fear of Islamic take-over was high. USA media debate concerns about increased Islamic presence in part borrow from Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order which predicts the end of the Cold War sets lose multiple clashes of cultures and religion: and in this case, Christianity and Islam. Here in Pakistan it is an ever-present reality. This small group – they call themselves “Interfaith Harmony” – meet to find ways to mitigate the ruthless effect of blasphemy laws, helping each other find harmony and peace within the country’s religious groups.
That day I was particularly struck by an Islamic scholar’s response to my description of our Canadian pluralistic model by which we seek to give all religions respect and space in which they believe and worship. His response was instructive: “Here, Islam is everything and everything is Islam.” This should not come as a surprise, for their theology encompasses all of life. Sharia law, defined by the Quran, becomes the ruling and binding legal framework for everything in life.
The serial nature of the Gospel
As Christians, we too are unapologetic in our calling to give witness of Jesus wherever we are. As Islam is upfront in its goal, so are we. However, theirs is substantially different. The Gospel is not imposed by imperial form. Missiologist Andrew Walls uses the term serial to describe the incarnational nature of the Gospel. Christ comes into life, transforming people, communities and one would pray that like yeast, influence the country. Islam embraces people and their society by way of laws—sharia—, language or outright conquest.
The Gospel is “serial.” The Ethiopian eunuch, reading the prophets, was converted under Phillip’s ministry, and went home. He wasn’t part of a strategy for cultural or national takeover. Rather the Gospel believed by one, was transferred to the community and from that sprung a believing Ethiopian church. The church has no center, as Islam has Mecca, neither do we have a civic law, but rather a spiritual force whose means is transformation from the inside out. Jerusalem while a strong memory, it is just that: not the place of our identity, nor where our faith is located. Instead it is found in Jesus, made alive by the ever-present Spirit.
Here in Pakistan, surrounded by intimidating religious attitudes, laws and mob violence, Christians are growing slowly but with resolution to live out his life, vibrant, creative and Spirit-filled. We can help faithful Christians in their witness and social transformation as we pray and intervene with the UN and other agencies, as the yeast of the Gospel spreads influence and global awareness, ever wanting to help others discover life in a faith of liberty and freedom.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance