Georgia L Gilholy is a journalist.
Last month the Christian community that has inhabited Pakistan’s Jaranwala district for centuries faced an allegedly orchestrated attempt to wipe out their presence.
The assault was led by a mob of Islamist extremists, accusing Christians of blasphemy against Pakistan’s majority faith, descended upon this region near Faisalabad in the Punjab Province, prompting the hasty exodus of thousands of Christian civilians.
Disturbing footage showed pews being tossed out of church windows, beds ablaze in the streets, and vehicles set on fire. The assailants displayed an alarming knowledge of the religious demographics of the area, systematically targeting Christian homes in both urban and rural settings.
According to Archbishop Joseph Arshad, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, 21 places of worship were targeted, with many set ablaze. Numerous Christian homes now lie in ruins, stripped of their belongings down to the last lightbulb. Concerns have been raised about the local police response during the attacks, with some suspecting institutional complicity or wilful blindness.
Prompted by a reliable tip-off, a hasty evacuation luckily allowed significant casualties to be averted. This precarious community, who were forced to anxiously shelter in fields of sugar cane during the height of the violence, now grapples with the aftermath. Their friends are few and far between.
Maybe at one point, these poor souls could have counted the United Kingdom as a champion of their cause, but this is obviously no longer the case. James Cleverly has made no public reference to this horrific episode, which hit newsstands across the world and went viral on social media for weeks.
The only public acknowledgement of these horrors by the Government was a tweet from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Foreign Office minister, back in August:
“Appalled by the violence against the Christian community in Jaranwala, Punjab today. Those responsible must be brought to justice. All of Pakistan’s citizens must be free to worship without fear of persecution. The UK remains committed to freedom of religion or belief for all.”
Lip service and the same old meaningless phrases, which Cleverly himself has apparently not found the time to offer, are unlikely to make any difference.
Yet Pakistan has long been one of our largest aid recipients, and between 2015 and 2019 Pakistan was the largest single recipient of direct British government-to-government bilateral aid. Although aid has fallen since the overall budget was cut from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent, the country still received £120 million in in 2021, and some £58 million went to the Pakistani state in 2022.
Last year a report from Parliament’s International Development Committee urged the UK government to target funding towards the most marginalised groups, including women and girls and religious minorities. It is unclear whether this has been the case. For now, it seems, Islamabad knows it can continue these barbaric practices, and still rely on aid with little strings attached.
If Pakistan is, as many international development experts claim, so in need of British taxpayer’s money, why is the Government not using its leverage to help the country’s most vulnerable?
At the very least, the Foreign Office should be demanding the abolition of Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws, which legally embed hostility to minority faiths and are increasingly being leveraged to accuse Christians of insulting the Prophet Mohammed or the Quran, a crime which risks capital punishment. False accusations are routinely made to target Christians following social disputes and often lead to mob violence.
Meanwhile, these laws have been defended by Imran Khan, whom many in the West are keen to see restored to the Pakistani presidency. I am not against foreign aid, it is a useful tool to aid socioeconomic development and foster global ties, but it should not be given without moral preconditions.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are hardly the only issue its 4.2 million Christians must grapple with.
Each year more than 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan are kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and made to marry their captors. In 2020 Maira Shahbaz, a Catholic teenager, was the victim of such a plot. She says she was kidnapped at gunpoint by three men in her neighbourhood of Faisalabad, about an hour’s drive from the Faisalabad, the city set ablaze last month.
The assailants recorded themselves raping her and threatened to release the tape. After allegedly being forced to marry one of her 45-year-old attackers and being coerced into signing a statement affirming her conversion to Islam, the 14-year-old eventually managed to escape.
A Pakistani court legally upheld the marriage in August 2020, demanding that Shahbaz be “returned” to her middle-aged husband. Against all odds, this unimaginably brave girl managed to flee to her relatives once more.
Given the slew of abuse and death threats she and her family – who have been forced to live in hiding – receive, and Pakistan’s obvious inability to respond to her horrific case appropriately, Shahbaz’s lawyer says that to remain in their home country is nothing short of a death sentence.
This fits an unhappy pattern. The delayed processing and eventual rejection of the Asia Bibi petition by the Home Office weas, according to reports at the time, partly due to concerns that her presence in the UK would risk causing “unrest among certain sections of the community” – undoubtedly referring to Islamist extremists.
Could this be behind our failure to respond adequately to Shahbaz’s case? Or why have we largely ignored Pakistan’s descent into anti-Christian fervour? Or is it simply that the issue of global Christian persecution is far less fashionable than other causes, especially now that a waning number of Brits practise that same faith?
I suspect the UK’s apathy is due to a combination of these factors. Still, if we have any influence in a country, we surely ought to leverage it in the interest of human rights and dignity, whether or not its wider fate is out of Britain’s hands.