Features

Slave wages

International | Persecution in Pakistan is all in a very long day's work

Issue: "The trouble with Tommy," May 4, 2002

LAHORE, Pakistan—"We love our children, but we need food," said Saddiq Masih, a 50-year-old brickmaker. That is why none of his 13 children was in school. Ranging in age from 18 months to 25 years, all seem destined to spend their lives making bricks.

This brickyard sits outside central Lahore, Pakistan's second most populous city, where President Pervez Musharraf last week began a campaign to extend his rule by referendum. Mr. Musharraf, who has distinguished himself as a friend of the United States in its war on terrorism, is now campaigning for allies in his own country. He took power in a coup three years ago and promised a return to civilian rule this year. Now he wants to extend his own tenure by referendum. While the United States may be better off with Mr. Musharraf in power, Christians like Mr. Masih do not see much change, especially judging by life at the brickyard.

The brickyard where he works is owned by a Muslim. It employs several Christian families whose members usually work together 12 hours a day, six days a week. On average a family-even one the size of Mr. Masih's-earns $6 or $7 a day.

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Mr. Masih's family has labored in this brickyard for 15 years. Like most of the Christian workers here, he says they have no choice, no other opportunities for employment. So they become, in effect, indentured servants, borrowing heavily from the owner just to get by. "It is like slavery," explains Emanuel S. Khokha, the 41-year-old pastor of a nearby Methodist church.

Yet few complain, especially given the tense relations between Muslims and Christians since Sept 11. Last October gunmen stormed a church in Bahawalpur during Sunday morning services and slaughtered 15 Christians, including the minister. Last month two men killed five Christians-among them two Americans-in a grenade attack on the Protestant International Church in Islamabad (see "'We will be here,'" March 30). Mr. Masih acknowledges the tension but it has not changed his outlook. "I have a strong faith in Jesus Christ. We're happy in this situation also," he said.

Christians account for only 2 percent of the population in Pakistan. Even before Sept. 11 most Pakistanis viewed them as believing in an alien god. Now they are more vulnerable than ever. "They blame us because Christians are linked to America," explains Mr. Khokha. "They blame us for Israel and the problem with the Palestinians. And they blame us because we are Christians."

Living with discrimination has turned to real fear of reprisal since last fall. "In the Afghan war one mosque was destroyed by bombing, and Muslim scholars preached, ?We will destroy the churches in Pakistan,'" said Mr. Khokha. "We are Pakistanis and this church belongs to Pakistan. But they say, they are Christians and you are Christians."

That hostility is openly displayed for American visitors. Angry stares follow them on city streets and even in the major airports. In Peshawar a woman dressed in a full-length burqa, or head covering, yelled out when three Westerners entered her neighborhood: "They are not Muslims, they are bad people," she shouted to anyone who would listen. "They are hurting our people in Afghanistan."

Discrimination is everywhere, say the Christians who work in the brickyard and live in the poor neighborhoods allotted to them. It exists from childhood, when education is denied or limited, and includes lack of employment opportunities and political rights. Some even face criminal prosecution, thanks to a decade-old anti-blasphemy law. "Ten years ago you could pass out Christian literature," said Mr. Khokha. Now the government "puts people in jail" for that kind of activity.

The law reads: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death and shall also be liable to a fine."

Last year authorities jailed Pakistani Christian schoolteacher Pervez Masih, 33, on questionable blasphemy charges. Three teenage boys accused him of slandering the Muslim prophet Muhammed in a private tutoring session. Under the blasphemy law, Pervez could receive the death penalty if convicted. He was denied bail and he remains in prison. At least seven other Christians are known to be in prison in Pakistan without bail on blasphemy charges, including one since 1996.

A member of Mr. Khokha's congregation who went by the name Yussef Masih ("Masih" is a family name often taken by Christians at conversion) faced a lengthy trial on blasphemy charges that ended with a death sentence. He eventually skirted the sentence by receiving political asylum in America. "He can't come back," says Mr. Khokha.

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