In Pakistan, Christmas came early this year. Last week, the Pakistani government inaugurated its first ‘Christmas Peace Train’ to send a message of support and solidarity to Pakistan’s beleaguered minority, Christian community. The train, which is the first of its kind in South Asia, departed from Islamabad on Thursday, December 22, and is covering all of Pakistan’s provinces, making stops at various sites, before arriving in Karachi on New Year’s Eve.
The project is unprecedented and deserves praise, but its message of co-exitence will only be meaningful if it is coupled with substantive policies to improve Pakistan’s treatment of religious minority groups, whose rights are often denied or trampled upon. One policy, which must be overhauled, are Pakistan’s infamous and notorious blasphemy laws, a set of measures originally codified by the British which stipulate harsh punishments for those accused of insulting religious symbols or personages.
To illustrate the dangers of the blasphemy law, one need look no further than the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was arrested in 2009 after sharing a bowl of water with Muslim field workers. An argument allegedly broke out after some of the workers refused to share the bowl with a Christian. Within weeks of the incident, Bibi was accused of blasphemy and arrested. She was eventually convicted, based on questionable evidence and conflicting reports. On November 2010, she was sentenced to death and placed in solitary confinement, where she remains to this day.
The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, visited Bibi after her sentence was handed down. Taseer defended Bibi and publicly criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which he said were abused and misapplied. For his comments, Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard, a man named Mumtaz Qadri. While Qadri was hanged for his crime, he received strong support from religious hardliners, who viewed him as a martyr. Their praise of Qadri is a sober reminder that changing social attitudes toward minorities will require more than symbolic gestures.
In 2011, Pakistan’s religious-minorities minister and the only Christian in the country’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in 2011 after publicly denouncing Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It is believed his killing was also linked to Bibi’s case.
Two years later, in 2013, a twin suicide bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar killed 127 people and injured 250 in the deadliest attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history. Earlier this year, a suicide bomber attacked a park in Lahore, where Christians were celebrating Easter, killing at least seventy people and injuring over 300. While only about one-fifth of those killed were Christians, the attackers made it no secret who their intended targets were.
Pakistan’s civilian-led government and powerful military have long pledged to continue their campaign against extremism in the country and bring stability to a nation devastated by terror attacks. Real security cannot be achieved, however, without removing policies that fuel violence against minorities. The extremists, who accused Bibi of blasphemy and murdered Taseer and Bhatti, are legitimized by the state’s blasphemy laws, which create the conditions for the stigmatization of minorities and enable the subsequent attacks against them.
Indeed, the white colors on Pakistan’s flag represent its vibrant and diverse minority communities, including Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and more. The country’s very identity is, in short, inextricably intertwined to how it treats minorities. Only by improving these relations can Pakistan truly reflect the meaning behind the flag’s white colors.