In this tiny village where most homes don’t have windows and meals are cooked over fire pits, Christians are used to feeling like second-class citizens.
Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.
Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.
“There is discrimination, and that is very much clear and obvious to all of us who live in this country,” said Nizar Masih, 65, a farmer who, like many Pakistani Christians, has a surname that refers to the Messiah.
Christians in Pakistan have been targets of what human rights activists call an unprecedented wave of violence against religious minorities, including Shiites, Ahmadis, Sikhs and Hindus. Thousands of members of religious minority groups have been killed over the past five years. But the Christians’ dwindling burial space is an example of a less dramatic but more persistent battle they say takes place behind the bloody headlines: a daily struggle for what might seem to be basic rights.
Here in central Punjab province, the 150 Christian families of Torey Wala say the two-acre cemetery they have been using for at least 50 years cannot handle any more bodies. Lying in a dense grove of thorn bushes, the cemetery is recognizable by the rows of piled dirt and the occasional tombstone. But those markings, villagers say, are just a fraction of the 400 bodies that rest below ground.
“We have dug each and every grave over, three to four times,” said Rafiq Masih, who estimated that he is 45 or 46 years old. “Sometimes we find bones, sometimes skeletons. So we had to look for a different place.”
Last month, the Christians thought they had found a solution: A local Muslim landowner gave them use of a two-acre plot. But when about 50 Christian villagers began grading the site on Sept. 2, they were quickly met by 500 angry Muslim neighbors.
The Muslims approached “eyeball-to-eyeball,” said villager Waris Masih, 32, and accused them of disturbing ancient Islamic grave sites.
“The Christians tried to dishonor our faith and bring harm to our graveyard,” said Muhammad Khalil, 45, a Muslim farmer.
Wasif Iqbal,whose family owns the land, insists there are no known graves on the site. Even so, by the next morning, 53 Christians had been charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Eight villagers, including a 12-year-old boy, were jailed while the others remained free on bond. The charges were dropped a week later, but the Christian villagers are now back to cramming bodies into the existing cemetery.
Christians in Pakistan make up about 1.5 percent of the population, according to the country’s last census, in 2005. But Christian leaders, who accuse the government of a deliberate undercount, say a more accurate figure is about 5.5 percent of the country’s 180 million residents.
Whatever the numbers, most Christians are poorly educated and are relegated to living in slums and working menial jobs such as sweeping streets, collecting garbage and picking crops. They are also frequently attacked by terrorists or angry neighbors.
In 2009, two Christian villagers in Punjab were shot dead and five others burned alive after a mob accused a Christian of burning a Koran. Last year, 127 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a Christian Church in Peshawar. In September, a police officer shot and killed a Christian while the man was in jail on blasphemy charges.
The country’s blasphemy law forbids insults of any form — even by “innuendo” — against the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and makes the crime punishable by death, though there has yet to be a state-sponsored execution of a convicted blasphemer. On Thursday, a Pakistani court upheld a 2010 death sentence for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, whose case drew worldwide attention and condemnation from the Vatican.
“Society has been cultivated to develop indifference and animosity toward” Christians, said Peter Jacob, former executive director of Pakistan’s National Commission for Peace and Justice, which advocates for Pakistani Christians.
In Lahore’s Shahpur Kanjra neighborhood, Christians have been burying their dead at a cemetery that they say dates to the 1800s. But Christian leaders say that about six years ago, a developer told them the land belonged to him and was being incorporated into a new housing development.
“They . . . threatened us and said, ‘All the graves will be gathered into a huge heap,’ ” said Sattar Sardar, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in the cemetery.
The Christians, who say cremation is not possible under their interpretation of their faith, filed a lawsuit blocking the seizure. But as the case winds through Pakistan’s slothful civil courts, they say the developer has moved ahead anyway with plans to create a park and a new walled-off cemetery for Muslims on part of the site.
Now, the Muslim section features trimmed grass and newly planted bushes, while the original Christian cemetery is overrun with weeds that tower over small, white wooden crosses. At the edge of the property is a steep gully. Christian leaders say the land slid away during the construction, taking with it numerous graves.
“It’s like a pain in our heart,” said Habib Masih, 37, whose mother and father are buried there — and who said he wonders where his own final resting place will be.
In Gujar Khan, an industrial town about 150 miles north of Lahore, the worshippers at the Christian Study Center are fighting their own court battle.
About a decade ago, local shopkeepers began encroaching on the Christian cemetery in the center of town, which Christians say was established in 1906. Now the plot is used as a dump, with about 150 graves covered in three feet of trash, and the church is seeking an injunction to block a developer from building on the land.
“We fear, eventually, they could also target the churches,” Anwar Inyat said at the church, where a“Merry Christmas” banner still hangs on the wall.
But the more immediate question is where to bury the dead. Allama Tahir Ashrafi, who chairs Pakistan’s Ulema Council of Islamic scholars, said Islamic teachings mandate Muslims be buried away from non-Muslims because Koranic verses cannot be located near other religious verses that may appear on a tombstone, some of which may refer to the Christian Crusades.
“To avoid any clash or riots, Muslims and non-Muslims can’t bury their dead bodies in one place,” Ashrafi said. Still, he added, Pakistani Muslims should insist that the country find adequate space for new Christian cemeteries.
In Torey Wala, Christians are still waiting for someone to offer them space for a new cemetery. Each day, the Christian villagers gather at their unnamed Catholic Church, which is marked by a small plastic cross on the roof.
The barren church contains just a small wooden altar, two Bibles and a series of small framed pictures depicting the 12 stations of the cross. Four goats, three roosters, two cows and a bull live in the courtyard.
“When we reach this church, and pray in the church, there is no fear,” said Shafiq Masih, 38.
Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.