PAK180618NI002LAHORE, Pakistan – For the first time in nine years, Asia Bibi will be with her family on Christmas.
But many Christians here are also afraid of a backlash this holiday season in the wake the Pakistani

Supreme Court’s landmark judgement in October exonerating the Christian woman who was charged under the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Recent cases of abductions, allegations of blasphemy and hate crimes against Christians, who make up 2 percent of the South Asian country’s populations, have led churches to beef up security as parishioners sing carols around bonfires and watch nativity dramas.

“This is best time for us. We plan the Christmas play throughout the year and arrange several programs in the festive season,” said Michelle Tariq, 17-year-old college student in Lahore. “But it is a tense situation in the country. We hope that the government will facilitate us in marking our religious season.”

A mother of five, including three stepchildren, Bibi was arrested for blasphemy in 2010 after she allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammed during an argument over whether or not she should have drunk from the same water bucket used by her Muslim coworkers on a farm.

The Supreme Court’s acquitted her of the charges, sparking unrest in Pakistan as Islamic hardliners called for her death. She and her husband are now in hiding in a government safehouse.

The climate has led many Christians to tone down their celebrations this year.

“We used to conduct carol singing in our neighborhood every Christmas,” said Natasha Joseph, a 31-year-old housewife in Karachi “This year we are scared to use loudspeakers as some Muslims might complain.”
Some will stay inside this Christmas.

Ishtiaq Masih, a 47-year-old security guard in Lahore, usually takes his family to the zoo and then joins other relatives for a picnic in Lawrence Gardens, a botanical garden in the city, after their Christmas festivities. Not this year.

“This has been our ritual for years,” he said. “There is a threat of attack in public spaces for my family.”
Last year, Islamic State suicide bombers stormed Sunday mass at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing nine people and injuring several others.

Christian survivors of that and other attacks feel unsafe participating in festivities.

“I have asked my family to just pray at home,” said Haroon Gill, 50, a schoolteacher in Quetta who was in the church. “There is no need to risk their lives. The children are upset. They won’t participate in the Christmas programs. I don’t have much of a choice knowing how our church was attacked last year and I was injured.”

It’s not the first time Christians have felt targeted for openly expressing their faith.

In 2016, on Easter Sunday, militants killed more than 90 people in a suicide bombing at Gulshan Iqbal Park in Lahore. An affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaatul Ahrar, took responsibility, saying that they targeted the Christians.

“Ever since the Easter attack, we fear going to crowded places,” said Iqbal Masih, 42, an electrician who lost family members in the bombing, said the climate has grown more fearful since the Bibi decision.

“Muslims are angry at us. They don’t want to see us celebrating.”
Space for religious minorities in Pakistan shrinking.

The United States last week added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom over the treatment of minorities in the country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among “countries of particular concern” in a congressionally mandated annual report.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression,” Pompeo said.

Shaista Malik, 22-year-old Christian business student in Lahore, has experienced the discrimination firsthand.

“We decorated our house with a Christmas tree. Our landlord made it an excuse to ask us to vacate the upper portion of the house,” said Malik. “Intolerance has increased in Pakistan.”

Human rights activist Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association criticized Pakistan’s government for not doing more to protect Christians. He noted that Bibi and her husband, Ashiq Masih, would spend their holiday away from her children, who are staying with a friend.

“Despite her joy at being free I cannot believe that Asia Bibi is feeling like much of a winner today,” said Chowdhry.

Photo: Christian parents Razia Masih (L) and Ilyiab Masih (R) at their home in Burewala, Pakistan. Their 17-year-old high school student, Sharoon Masih, died in a hate crime beating that took place at a campus in August 2017.
Credit: Mehwish Edwin/ARA Network Inc. (09/14/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/20/18

A version of this story was published in the Religion News Service.
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