At a well-attended meeting in Parliament on Tuesday evening, chaired by Lord Alton of Liverpool, Peers and MPs heard first-hand accounts about the plight of the persecuted church in Pakistan and Egypt – and in particular about the plight of Christian women, whom Lord Alton said faced “double persecution – both on account of their beliefs and their gender.”
The charity Aid To The Church In Need presented parliamentarians with copies of their new report: Christians and the Struggle for Religious Freedom, looking at persecution of Christians in 13 countries, with an introduction asserting the importance of religious freedom; and with copies of Christian Women in Pakistan and Egypt: A Briefing. The speakers included Mrs Asiya Nasir, a Christian woman who is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. The meeting also heard from a Pakistani Catholic woman and two Archbishops.
Joannes Zakaria is the Coptic Catholic Archbishop of Luxor. At nearly 63, he has been a bishop for 19 years.
Before coming to Luxor, he was chaplain to the Coptic Catholic disapora in the US, based in Beverly Hills, California. It came at a time when the diaspora community started to grow and after becoming bishop his pastoral priority has been to encourage the Coptic faithful to stay in the country.
Leading a vast diocese, stretching down to Aswan and beyond, Christians in the Luxor region number 18,000 in a total population of four million. Problems of discrimination and oppression against Christians are uniquely serious in the diocese. Arson attacks on churches have taken place. Over the past four years, at least three church buildings in his diocese have caught fire in suspicious circumstances.
He stated: “In 2011, from the final days under Moubarak through the post-Mubarak days of the so-called Arab Spring, it seemed to many like the clock was being turned back again to the days of the Early Church's suffering. Now, the situation of Christians in Egypt, is so difficult [regarding] schools, universities, and getting a job. Christians in Egypt have lost hope and they leave their country if they can.
“As a Coptic Catholic bishop, I am concerned about Christian women who face physical and sexual violence, captivity, exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure forced conversions.
Thomsena Anjum has seen first hand many of the problems which affect Christians in Pakistan. She has experience of situations in which Christian women were denied access to drinking wells – because local Muslims claimed that the wells would be contaminated if they were used by Christians. This echoes the situation of Asia Bibi – Muslim women refused to drink the water she had fetched – when she was accused of making the blasphemous remarks for which she was sentenced to death in November 2010.
Mrs Anjum and her family suffered persecution first hand after her youngest son Reshayl was falsely accused by Muslim students at Lahore Grammar School of insulting the Muslim prophet Mohammad in March 2009. In May 2009, the family received threatening letters demanding they pay sums of more than 1 million rupees or accept the consequences. Mrs Anjum and a driver were shot at by an Islamic cleric when they were driving to deliver books to 50 Non-Formal and Adult Literacy Centres.
The bullets passed close to Mrs Anjum’s neck but neither she nor the driver were injured. Police refused to let them register a report after they said that they were working for a Christian NGO and had been fired on by an Islamic cleric.
“For the past 16 years, I have been engaged in several projects run by my charity www.tamir.org.pk in the district of Faisalabad. Because of my work with disabled people, I was awarded the ‘Good Citizen’ title by the Army Monitoring Cell and city Mayor in 2000.
“The same year, I was selected as District Council Member of ‘Pakistan Bait-Ul-Mall’ for Minorities in Faisalabad. My role was to work with Christian families, assess their need, recommend and process their financial application under the ‘Food Support Programme’. I was able to help more than 4,000 Christian families in four years.
“In 2004, I was responsible for Literacy project run by Tamir and District Literacy Department. I extensively visited villages and opened Adult Literacy centres in 50 villages. These programmes connected me with my Christian community and I have experience of their plight and pain of discrimination they suffered on daily basis
as second class citizens.”
Joseph Coutts is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Karachi. The most populous city in the country, Karachi is the financial centre and previous capital of Pakistan. He is involved in inter-faith dialogue with Muslims in a bid to bring stability to the small and frequently persecuted Christian community in Pakistan. Bishop Coutts is the National Director of Caritas Pakistan.
Born in Amritsar, India, on 21 July 1945, he studied for the priesthood at Christ the King Seminary, Karachi and was ordained on 9 January 1971. On 5 May 1988, he became co-adjutor Bishop of Hyderabad in Pakistan serving a diocese serving 150,000 Catholics. On 27 June 1998, he was appointed Bishop of Faisalabad following the
suicide of Bishop John Joseph. Bishop Joseph shot himself as a final protest against the death sentence handed out to Christian Ayub Massih, after he was convicted of committing blasphemy in a public place and sentenced to death on April 27 under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws.
Between December 2006 and February 2007, Bishop Coutts and two senior Muslim leaders received death threats after attending an inter-faith programme in a local Islamic school. On 26 June 2007, he was awarded the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt’s Shalom Prize for justice and peace for his inter-faith work in the country, building relations with the Muslim community. On 25 January 2012 he was appointed Archbishop of Karachi.
Bishop Coutts states: “In my country, the rise of extremism and growing problems relating to governance and law enforcement have fundamentally compromised the place of religious freedom in society. Hence, individual religious communities are at risk from verbal abuse, physical violence and a denial of basic rights, most especially legal justice. The breakdown of law and order has put Christian communities at particular risk… Christians and their faith have been mocked and disparaged in schools and other state institutions, their churches have been targeted, their homes destroyed, they have been accused of crimes they have not committed, punished without fair trial – and often without any trial at all. Their livelihoods have been destroyed and their very lives endangered… Who will listen? Who will act?