Pakistan's Christians not cowering amid rising intolerance

By Shaiq Hussain
Friday, December 24, 2010; 5:28 PM

IN ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN Waris Masih spends his workdays sweeping and cleaning wide, tree-shaded streets, a job shared by many of the Christians who live in this serene capital city. The other afternoon, he turned his focus toward beautifying one of the trees in his own neighborhood - using lights, baubles and garland.

Aided by a throng of enthusiastic youths, Masih, 50, was spreading the Christmas spirit inside one of Islamabad's "Christian colonies," crowded shantytowns that stand in stark contrast to the city's manicured lawns and stately villas. Nearby, others were constructing a wooden Nativity scene.

Asked whether they were afraid, they offered resounding nos.

It was, perhaps, a surprising answer in Muslim-majority Pakistan at the end of 2010, a year when animosity toward religious minorities appeared to escalate. Islamist insurgents killed hundreds in bombings on mosques belonging to minority Muslim sects such as Ahmadis and Sufis. Less than 5 percent of Pakistanis are Christians, and tensions rose further last month after a court sentenced a Christian woman to death for blasphemy, triggering debate over laws that critics say promote religious intolerance.

Instead of cowering, though, several Christians in Islamabad said they planned to make their celebrations as public as ever, and maybe even more so.

"There are, no doubt, problems for minorities in this country . . . but we have to live with them. This is our country," Masih said. "It's a great occasion for us."

The municipal government has backed them up. Last year, city workers were instructed to adorn one tree on public property. This year - the 50th anniversary of Islamabad's founding - they decorated 12, according to Razaman Sajid, a city spokesman.

"The efforts of the Christian community stand tall and need due acknowledgement," Razaman said.

Christmas coincides with a national holiday in Pakistan, the birth date of the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Though Jinnah envisioned Pakistan as a refuge for India's Muslim minority, he advocated that it should be a place for all faiths.

More than six decades later, however, Pakistan still struggles with the role of Islam - and of other religions - in society, and with implementing Jinnah's ideals. In recent decades, the views of hard-line Muslim clerics have gained strength, as have shocking attacks on minorities.

Authorities in cities across the country said they were preparing for the possibility of violence on Christmas, just as they did for recent gatherings on the Shiite mourning date of Ashura. In the volatile northwestern province of Kyber Pahktunhwa, officials told local media that they would deploy paramilitary soldiers to guard churches. Some said that was not enough.

"The government is bound to provide security to Christian worship places and other minority groups," said Nelson Azeem, a federal legislator and prominent Christian leader. "The authorities try to do that, but the security arrangements are inadequate in the face of ongoing terrorist attacks."

Even so, signs of the holiday remain on display in Islamabad. The city's few churches are strung with lights. Some shops, particularly those catering to foreigners, offer seasonal sweets, tinsel and cards.

In Masih's neighborhood, residents said the religious tensions that marked the year had been set aside for at least a few days. Naveed Maseeh, 16, listed all the ways he was marking the holiday: baking cakes, exchanging cards and helping erect a small manger outside his church, to house the scene marking Jesus's birth.

"I love this barn, and every year I wait anxiously for this time to make and decorate it," Maseeh said. "We are not afraid."

Salim Inayat Maseeh, another teenage boy, chimed in: "Once done with the stable, we will go to our houses and start with decoration over there and we will also adorn our streets," said Maseeh, which is a common surname for Christians here. "It's a sort of competition."

At a bookstore in a bustling city market, Rifaat Zafar, 15, struggled to choose a Christmas card for her grandmother in London. But she said she knew exactly what she would write inside the one she chose.

"I want to tell my grandma that we are also all out to celebrate the holy event like millions of others around the world," Zafar said. "And also to pray that the Christmas here gets passed peacefully without any violence."

Hussain is a special correspondent.

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