Several Christians in Pakistan face untold social discrimination and religious intolerance. As a religious minority, many of them are politically disadvantaged, economically poor, lack social security and are often socially segregated. Reports also indicate that discrimination towards some Christians is even extends to securing admission to government schools, public sector jobs or senior positions in the public sector. Owing to poverty and social discrimination, the rights of religious minorities are often violated and the justice system also fails to protect them.
It is in this back drop that the Arshad family experienced an agonizing ordeal, with their lives constantly under threat.
The Arshads lived in a small city in the province of Punjab, in Pakistan. The family had been Christians for three generations. Mr. Arshad was a retired clerk who had served in a private organisation. The Arshads have three children. Ayesha the eldest daughter is married, Zafir the only son is a secondary level student in the 10th standard and the third child Nadira is a primary level student in the 5th standard.
The Arshads were leading a peaceful life in a quiet neighbourhood. One day Zafir came back from school very distraught and frightened. He told his parents that his teachers and school friends were forcing him to convert to Islam and they had insulted him in derogatory terms. He refused to go to school but his parents coaxed him to go to school the next day. On his way to school the next day, a crowd of boys abducted Zafir and took him to Muslim clerics. The clerics tortured and abused him with the aim of forcing him to accept Islam.
As Zafir did not come home that day the Arshads began to worry and fear for their son’s life. They went in search of him to school and found out that Zafir had not been to school that day. The Arshads received a phone call 2 days later from a Police Station about 20 kilometres from where they lived. The police informed the parents that they had found Zafir. When the parents went to the police station they found him dressed like a Muslim cleric. Zafir did not seem to be in his senses. He looked very frightened. The police refused to hand him to the parents saying that Zafir had now accepted Islam and should not be living with his Christian parents. However with the help of a lawyer the parents secured his release and took him home. Little did the Arshads know that this was just the beginning of a bigger ordeal which was to follow.
The Arshad family was followed from time to time by the clerics. Therefore they moved to a different city and lived with close relatives for a while. During this time Zafir began to act as though he was not in his senses, claiming Islam to be the true religion and rejecting Christianity. “It was as if he had been hypnotised” the family recalls.
The family decided to register a case known as the First Investigation Report (FIR). The Police however refused to lodge the complaint; they claimed there was no need for an investigation as Zafir had accepted Islam (according to the law, a crime was not committed).
During this time the Arshad family found it very difficult to provide medical attention for Zafir as the clerics and radical Muslims would follow them and discourage the doctors from treating him. Zafir’s condition was deteriorating rapidly; he was semi-conscious. A Computerised Tomography (CT) Scan revealed that he had clots in the head. As he needed specialised attention in neurosurgery, he was transferred to a hospital which offered the required specialised treatment. As the hospital treatment was beyond what the Arshad’s could afford a relative from abroad contributed towards the hospital expenses. It was at this time of desperation that they received donations from Christian relief organizations and a Church in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Muslim radicals would periodically send messages to the Arshads, threatening that they would burn their house if Zafir was not handed over to them. Subsequently the family contacted a Pakistani organisation that works for minority rights and provides legal assistance for disadvantaged minority groups. Representatives of this group accompanied the Arshad family to the police inquiries which were held from time to time.
Even though Zafir was under medication he did not seem to improve. The abuse at the hands of the clerics left him tramatised and resulted in sleepless nights and bouts of fear. He refused to speak with any one and would only write his feelings in a diary. In his entries he described how much he feared that the radicals would follow him in order to burn him and his family. Zafir was in need of immediate medical help. However the Arshads were unable to obtain adequate medical attention for their son as they could not reveal the extent of the incident to the doctors in fear that they would not treat Zafir because of his faith. Finally a Christian pastor residing oversees, who is also related to the Arshads, sponsored the family to leave Pakistan in search of refuge in Sri Lanka.
Zafir was introduced to a private hospital where he received medical treatment. After several months the Arshads moved out of retreat centre that they were staying in and live in a small rented house. They cook their own meals and attend to the household chores on their own, which is in a way therapeutic and keeps them occupied. Even though they are sojourners in a foreign land and hold the status of ‘asylum seekers’ they have quietly settled down in their new home. They are happy and grateful since they are able to live together as one family and take comfort in the knowledge that their adversaries are no longer spying on their activities.
However due to the current security problems faced by Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka, the family lives once again in great fear of deportation to Pakistan. “We were quite happy up until now, even though we constantly wonder what is in store for our children and about their future” commented a distraught Mrs. Arshad. “But now we are afraid to step out of the house to go to the market or to church. We just don’t know when all our problems will end.”
* Names, places and particulars of events have been changed.