Religious Persecution on the Rise
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2018, four men waved down a rickshaw driver in a suburb of the Pakistani megalopolis of Karachi. The men, all Muslim and led by a Muslim cleric, recognized the cabbie, who happened to be a Catholic they had harassed many years prior. They pulled him out of the rickshaw, beat him almost to death, and then set fire to the vehicle, his only source of income.
I know that Christian, whose name is Michael D’Souza. My wife and I befriended him during three years living in Bangkok, where he and his family had fled in 2012, seeking asylum and refugee status. With the assistance of some family and friends, we paid his family’s airfare when they decided, after almost a year in Bangkok’s infamous Immigration Detention Center, to return to Pakistan in summer 2017.
Michael’s story is not atypical for Pakistani Christians, who comprise less than two percent of the country’s population. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Asia Bibi, an impoverished Pakistani Christian who in 2010 was convicted of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law and sentenced to death by hanging. It was all over a cup of water: Muslims in her village took offense that she, an unclean Christian, had drunk from the same drinking vessel as them. Only after her story attracted international attention and condemnation, including a statement by Pope Benedict XVI, was Bibi freed and allowed to flee to Canada.
Less well known is why Christians in Pakistan have become the objects of so much vitriol and violence, including a March 2016 suicide bombing at a crowded park in Lahore targeting Christians celebrating Easter Sunday, which killed 72 people. The most common explanation given, often by conservative Christians in America, is the rise of Islamic extremism, particularly the Wahhabi and Deobandi strands of reactionary Islam that originate in Saudi Arabia and India, respectively. There is certainly much truth to this. Many of the militantly conservative madrassas in Pakistan, especially in the more remote mountainous regions bordering Afghanistan, are funded by the Saudis.
But there is another, less discussed factor: the effect of U.S. foreign policy in the region. That story begins more than 40 years ago, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979. An Afghan anti-Soviet insurgency provoked a strong Russian response, which by 1982 had driven almost 3 million Afghans into Pakistan. From the relative safety of the western mountain valleys of Pakistan, the Afghan insurgency, or mujahideen, tormented the Soviets, aided by Riyadh and Washington with such weapons as U.S.-provided Stinger missiles, which ravaged Russian Mi-24D helicopter gunships.
In one respect, the triple alliance between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan was a resounding Cold War success. The Afghan war was a total embarrassment for the Soviet Union, which, after suffering more than 70,000 casualties and wasting billions of dollars, evacuated the country in 1989. Yet it also laid the groundwork for the very circumstances that would facilitate 9/11.
Even after the Russians departed, millions of Afghans, primarily Pashtuns, remained in Pakistan. And these Pashtuns were often educated by clerics influenced by the Saudis’ reactionary, explicitly anti-Western brand of Islam. Indeed, a madrassa founded by Pakistani religious and political leader Sami ul-Haq had been a major training ground for the leadership of the Taliban, which catapulted to military success when they captured Kandahar in 1994. When they seized Kabul in 1996, they provided an ideal safe haven for Saudi extremist (and former mujahideen supporter) Osama bin Laden.
Following NATO retaliation for 9/11, resulting in the defeat of the Taliban, militant Afghan Pashtuns (and bin Laden) once more fled into Pakistan to begin yet another insurgency against a foreign aggressor, forming military shuras, or councils, in cities like Quetta and Peshawar. By the early 2000s, Pashtuns were a sizable minority not only in the fairly remote western provinces (known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA) but in major cities like Lahore and Karachi.
Although Pakistani Christians had often been harassed and targeted via the country’s heinous blasphemy law, which was increasingly enforced during the presidential administration of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977–88), the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent invasion of Iraq dramatically heightened anti-Christian sentiments. “Christians in Pakistan were subjected to retaliation from Muslims seeking vengeance on supposed allies of the Americans,” observes scholar and Muslim convert to Christianity Patrick Sookhdeo.
These sentiments were especially visible among aggrieved Pashtun communities that had embraced the Taliban’s extremist ideology. By 2007, militant groups in NWFP and FATA, which had engaged in sporadic revolt against the Pakistani government, had coalesced into the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Like the Afghan Taliban, it was dominated by Pashtuns and maintained the same rigid form of Islamic belief and practice.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, U.S.-led military efforts aimed at combating the Taliban’s alarmingly effective insurgency began focusing on the border areas of northwest Pakistan that harbored Taliban insurgents. This, in turn, led many Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to flee their mountain havens in favor of more populated parts of Pakistan, including Karachi, a city of almost 15 million people. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees from those same provinces migrated to Karachi because of Pakistani military operations aimed at combating Taliban-aligned insurgencies.
News media in 2009 and 2010 began reporting speculations that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar had shifted his base from Quetta, near the Afghan border, to Karachi. In a period of just a few weeks in late 2009, Karachi police arrested more than 450 illegal foreign residents, mostly Afghan and Uzbek citizens suspected of having ties to militants. When the Washington Post in 2014 asked a senior Karachi police commander about the number of Taliban sympathizers living in the city, he bluntly estimated “a couple hundred thousand.” The same article cited Pakistani officials and analysts who estimated that the number of active militants who were members of either the Taliban or similar Muslim extremist groups was ten to fifteen thousand.
Thus Pakistan’s minority Christian populations faced a problem stemming from two overlapping developments: increased numbers of Taliban-sympathizing Pashtuns in their communities, and a large “Christian” Western military presence in neighboring Afghanistan that inflamed Pashtun anti-Western grievances. Militant Pashtuns viewed Christians in Pakistan as both a stain on the Islamic purity of Pakistan (the name derives from the Urdu word for “pure”) and an immediately visible manifestation of the Western imperialism they despised.
Such anger was compounded by frequent news of U.S. military interventions elsewhere in Dar-al-Islam, or the “land of Islam”: not only Iraq but Libya, Syria, and Yemen. These Western military activities were perceived by many Muslims, and certainly those adhering to its more conservative manifestations, as a direct affront to the Islamic world. Sookhdeo explains, “This attitude can manifest itself in anti-Christian action, following the age-old equating of the Western world with the Christian world.”
After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Christians began feeling the heat. In August 2002, gunmen threw grenades into a chapel in northern Punjab, killing four and wounding twenty-five. In September 2002, Muslim gunmen murdered six people at a Christian charity in Karachi. In December 2002, following an Islamic cleric’s call for Muslims to kill Christians, two burqa-clad Muslim gunmen threw a grenade into a Presbyterian church in eastern Pakistan, killing three girls. In November 2005, 3,000 militant Islamists attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, and United Presbyterian churches.
Violence became even more intense and high-profile in the next decade. In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities affairs in the Pakistani government, and a Catholic, was assassinated by gunmen for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In September 2013, 75 Christians at the Anglican All Saints Church in Peshawar were killed by an extremist suicide attack. Attacks on two churches in Lahore on March 15, 2015, killed 15 Christians and wounded 70. On December 17, 2017, a bomb attack on a Methodist church killed nine and injured 57.
Pakistan’s Christian community has always been disenfranchised, not only as a religious minority but because many converts came from the lower classes of the Indian subcontinent. The threat to their communities has dramatically increased in recent years, exemplified not only in the violence, but the approximately 1,000 girls abducted and forcibly married to Muslim men every year. Unable to defend themselves, and possessing little faith that Pakistan’s legal system and security forces could defend them, many Pakistan Christians considered simply fleeing. Many did, thousands of them to Bangkok.
Thailand may seem an odd choice for impoverished, persecuted Pakistani Christians, but there are good reasons why it has become a refuge for them. Prior to the pandemic, tourism regularly accounted for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Because of this, Thailand made it very easy to visit, with a 30 day visa acquirable upon arrival, no questions asked. Moreover, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees maintains an office in Bangkok and processes refugee applications for asylum seekers. (Unfortunately for Pakistani Christians, the refugee application process often takes years and usually culminates with a rejection letter.)
Thousands of Pakistani Christians like my friend Michael emptied their savings for one-way tickets to Thailand in the hopes of being designated refugees and placed on a list for resettlement in the handful of countries worldwide that accept refugees (annually, only about one percent of those designated refugees are actually repatriated). The UNHCR’s slow processing, and Thai authorities’ growing annoyance at large numbers of poor Pakistanis, created new problems. Churches, especially those with English-speaking congregations, were flooded with illegal Pakistani migrants who had overstayed their Thai visas and were looking for friends. Corrupt Thai police, seeing an opportunity, began rounding up the migrants and throwing them into a municipal detention center, where they languished for months, if not years, until sympathetic benefactors, usually from churches, posted their bail.
Though my wife and I departed Thailand more than four years ago, this crisis continues to this day. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Pakistani asylum seekers are currently living in Thailand. Another family of Pakistani Catholics we befriended remains stuck in Bangkok, where they have been for almost ten years, more than a dozen people living in two small cement-block rooms without air conditioning. The grandfather of that family, suffering from dementia and diabetes, died this past October.
It would be overly simplistic, and uncharitably polemical, to trace a line directly from the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the current humanitarian crisis in Thailand or the plight of Pakistani Christians in their native lands. Pakistan’s mistreatment of Christians long predates the Global War on Terror. My friend Michael was not necessarily beaten and bloodied because of choices made by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush.
But certainly none of that helped. Like adding gasoline to a fire, U.S. intervention in Muslim South Asia and the Middle East compounded the problems of already suffering Christian communities. As far away as Burkina Faso, Muslim militants armed with weapons originally from Gaddafi’s defeated Libyan military terrorize Christian villages.
The stories of my Pakistani friends must serve as a warning for the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Military decisions with noble intentions—stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, overthrowing brutal dictators, preventing the use of chemical weapons—result in unanticipated secondary and tertiary effects. Technocratic attempts to apply military force to solve one humanitarian crisis cause other crises, sometimes worse.
Twenty years removed from the invasion of Afghanistan, the effects of that U.S. foreign policy decision are felt thousands of miles away in Pakistan and Thailand, causing new humanitarian problems with no end in sight. The U.S. may no longer conduct air missions from Bagram Air Base or drone strikes into western Pakistan. That is little consolation to what remains of Pakistan’s vulnerable and besieged Christian population.
Casey Chalk is a contributing editor at New Oxford Review and a senior contributor at The Federalist. He is author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).