Pakistani Christians, often discriminated against because of their faith and standing as members of Pakistan’s lowest caste, find that discrimination follows them in prisons as well.
The justice system is extremely slow in Pakistan and, as a result, thousands of Pakistanis languish in overcrowded jails, having yet to face trial. As many Christians are accused of blasphemy only because of personal vendettas or vested interests, it takes years before courts absolve them of false charges.
World Watch Monitor met several Christian inmates, who revealed that they are mistreated because of their religion. They said that as soon as it was revealed to other prisoners that they are Christian, the attitudes of other prisoners and officers towards them changed and they were treated as ‘untouchables’ and forced to clean the toilets.
Pastor Maurice Shahbaz, founder and director of the Prisons Mission Society of Pakistan, has been struggling for more than a year now to get permission for missionaries, evangelists and pastors to be allowed to visit prisons to share teaching with Christian inmates.
Shahbaz, who lives in the north-eastern city of Gujranwala but helps Christian prisoners across the country, has appealed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court to address the situation.
“The former Inspector General, Mian Farooq Nazir, ordered in early 2016 to bar religious leaders and teachers from visiting prisons, which affects even their entitlement to a reduction of their sentence,” Shahbaz told World Watch Monitor.
He explained that Article 215 of the 1978 Pakistan Prison Rules allows for the reduction of sentences based on the passing of educational exams or the obtaining of religious instruction, but that this is now harder to access.
Deputy Inspector General Tariq Mehmood Khan Babar told World Watch Monitor that clerics have been prevented from visiting prisons since the National Action Plan was introduced in early 2015, following the December 2014 attack by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, when 132 schoolchildren were killed at the Army Public School in Peshawar. In January 2015, the government announced its National Action Plan, aimed at eradicating extremism, but the move in turn affected general freedom to worship.
Social worker Yousuf Sodagar, who works with inmates at Kasur District Jail, says the prison administration has also reduced the number of times Christians are allowed to meet to worship.
“I was wrongly imprisoned in 1993 in this jail,” Sodagar recalls. “Back then, when the Jail Inspector General was visiting here, I requested him to allow Christians to worship together. Since then the prison administration allowed the Christians to assemble twice a day for worship, but only about three months ago this practice has been stopped and they are allowed to meet only in the morning.
“When I met the deputy superintendent of the Kasur District Jail, he also said that Christian inmates should worship with decency and not with loud music. I told him that no-one can dictate to us how to worship and this is the most solemn aspect of our worship.”
However, Deputy Superintendent Tipu Sultan said he “cannot believe an official would use these words”.
“I know that after the National Action Plan, clerics of all religions and Muslim denominations are barred from visiting persons of their faith in prisons and this was not discrimination but a matter of security,” he added.