The spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans urged Pakistan to treat all people equally today during a trip designed to show his support for the embattled Christian community, saying many felt "under siege".
The Archbishop of Canterbury arrived in Pakistan on Tuesday to meet Muslim and Anglican leaders at a time when Christians feel under attack from both authorities and their Muslim neighbors due to Pakistan's oppressive blasphemy laws. "There is a considerable sense of anxiety, of being under siege," Justin Welby, a former oil executive, told sources outside a church in the eastern city of Lahore. "There was a very clear sense that people were nervous about the misuse of the blasphemy law, as a sort of a tool of politics, a way of gaining attention, or as a mob thing," he added, flanked by two Pakistani bishops. He earlier told journalists "Equality under the law is very important."
Rights activists say a spike in the number of blasphemy cases in Pakistan is evidence of rising intolerance in the mainly Sunni Muslim South Asian state of 180 million people. Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan and cases against both religious minorities and Muslims are rising. Christians and other minorities such as Ahmadis have often been jailed or lynched for blasphemy for allegedly making jokes to neighbors or sending text messages mocking Muslims.
"I pray for their blessing and for the government to be favorable to seeing that this is not a group that are seeking undue advantage but are only seeking to do good," Welby said. "The message was really to say to everyone, Christians have been a powerful force for good in this country over a very long time indeed, in schooling, in hospitals."
Christians make up about four percent of Pakistan's population and tend to keep a low profile in a country where Sunni Muslim militants frequently bomb targets they see as heretical, including Christians, and Sufi and Shi'ite Muslims. In September last year, around 100 Christian parishioners including many Sunday school children were killed in an attack on a historic church in the city of Peshawar.
In a recent case, a seven-year-old Christian girl was gang raped on her way to church in a village near the Indian border, according to a Christian activist who asked not to be named. He said police refused to register her case and a local hospital refused to treat her, forcing the Christian community to scramble to find enough blood donations to keep her alive. "It's wonderful to have the Archbishop at a time when Pakistan is going through such difficulties," the Right Reverend Bishop of Peshawar, Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, told journalists. "The church in Pakistan is really struggling for survival." He said 25 victims from the Peshawar attack were still bedridden and needed treatment, including a pregnant woman whose eight-month-old fetus was killed by shrapnel in the blast. "My biggest appeal to the body of Christ (global Christian community) is if all possible assistance could be given to heal them," he said.