It is an established fact that the most persecuted religion in the world today is Christianity, even though many people are not aware of this. For many years, ACN, with branches in many countries, has been working to make the voice of these voiceless Christians heard. Equally important is ACN’s campaign of prayer and support for suffering Christians throughout the world.
Having been associated with ACN and seen their good work over more than two decades, I feel honoured to write this foreword to the 2017-19 edition of Persecuted and Forgotten?
Persecution of a religion can take on many forms. It could be like the direct brutal attacks carried out by Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria against Christians and Yazidis, or it could take on more subtle forms such as discrimination, threats, extortion, kidnapping and forced conversion, denying of rights or curtailing of freedom.
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where Christians are a tiny minority in a large population of over 200 million, we have faced all of the above over the years. In difficult times we have also found strength from the encouragement and support received from ACN.
No doubt, the constitution of our country gives us freedom to practise our religion, and there are many churches as well as Christian schools, hospitals and charitable institutions in Pakistan that serve all the people without distinction. However, although the Church, through its many institutions, plays a significant role in the development of the country, there remain deep-rooted prejudices and negative perceptions of non-Muslims in our society. These can easily be brought to the fore by hate-mongering elements or when clerics misuse the loudspeakers of a mosque to incite hatred. This is what happened in 1997 when a large mob, fuelled by a rumour that the holy Qur’an had been desecrated by a Christian, was incited to attack a big Christian village called Shantinagar (Peace-ville). Fortunately, the Christians fled to save their lives, leaving the mob to destroy churches and houses.
In recent years there has been a growing intolerance in society, aggravated by the growth of militant and extremist Islamic groups such as the Taliban and others affiliated to Al Qaeda and Daesh. In 2001 we had the traumatic experience of two young extremists, armed with automatic weapons, bursting into a church in Bahawalpur and killing 15 worshippers and wounding dozens of others. This was the first time we had such an attack on a church. The government and the majority population condemned such a brutal attack; profound sorrow and sympathy was shown by our Muslim brethren. But other such attacks were to follow, even on the mosques of some Muslim sects. The worst to date was the attack of a suicide bomber on the Sunday congregation as people were leaving All Saints’ Church in Peshawar in 2013. Up to 150 churchgoers were killed and almost twice that number wounded.
Since then there have been nearly a dozen other attacks – with mercifully fewer casualties – thanks to armed police guards provided by our government. The government provides armed police protection, whenever we request it for church services or gatherings. But militant groups have become difficult to control, thus leaving us in a state of constant tension, knowing at the back of our minds that somewhere at some time there is going to be another attack – where or when is anybody’s guess.
Yes, we do have the freedom to believe and to practise our faith, but we have to be ready to face the wrath of those elements in our country who have a different mind-set. The words of Jesus to his disciples are there to remind us what His followers should expect: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
We unite our sufferings with those who suffer more than us and find inspiration in the words of the Apostle Paul: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body”
(2 Cor. 4:8-10).
+ Joseph Cardinal Coutts
Archbishop of Karachi