Pakistan’s Christian Minority

by Gene R. Preston

Gene R. Preston retired after 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, the last three of which were served in Pakistan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990 pp. 841-844, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The author examines evidence of widespread Muslim prejudice against Christians in Pakistan.

No one really knows the size of Pakistan’s Christian minority, nor of the entire population. The most recent census -- conducted in 1981 -- gave a rough count of 84 million people of whom not quite a million were Christian. The unofficial 1990 estimate is 108 million, with an explosive birthrate of nearly 4 percent. That could soon mean up to 2 million Christians in this land of Islam.

One of the largest headaches these Christians will face concerns real estate. The church spires that dominate Pakistan’s major cities are legacies of British rule when large tracts of prime real estate in the Raj cantonment areas -- now the downtowns of Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Pindi -- were dedicated to cathedral and parish uses. After independence in 1947 most of this real estate passed to the native Christian churches. The upkeep of these old buildings and the need to fend off Muslims and dissident Christians who want the land preoccupy the country’s Protestant and Catholic hierarchies.

The federal capital of Islamabad is the one major Pakistani city void of Christian architecture because it was founded after independence. More befitting Pakistan’s official title of Islamic Republic, the capital’s skyline is dominated by the huge Faisal mosque, a gift from Saudi Arabia. The Protestant Church of Pakistan (a 1970 union of Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians) has an especially urgent real estate anxiety in the capital because conservative Muslim groups are pressing to keep the skyline free of spire and cross. While the government has sold land at fair market price to a few Christian groups, the Church of Pakistan has been unable to build because irate Muslims keep tearing down foundation stones, the most recent incident being the defacement of an inaugural marker unveiled by Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury in a spring 1990 visit.

Nuisance troublemaking against Christians goes on quite unnoticed in the smaller towns and villages, but the problem in Islamabad became a cause célèbre because a number of diplomats worship in the house parish that seeks to build a permanent church. Thus the annual Human Rights Report of the U.S. State Department, mute the previous decade on discrimination and the occasional acts of violence against Christians, included in its January 1990 report the observation that "Christians have had difficulty in getting permission to build new churches" and that "Christians complain that there are barriers to Christians rising to high positions in public service, public corporations, universities and the military." The report did not allege that the government of Pakistan supported discrimination, but it speculated that "the government’s reticence in looking into incidents involving discrimination against minorities is a reflection of its fear of offending fundamentalist Muslims who wield substantial influence over their co-religionists."

The Pakistani government of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto denied the State Department’s finding and a number of more detailed criticisms about the treatment of two other minorities, the Hindus and the Ahmadis. A government spokesman stated on national TV that "the contents of the report regarding Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus were baseless." The spokesman continued, "The report was a classical example of disinformation aimed at creating disturbances in a country where people have been living so long with minorities enjoying full rights. [The claim] that the Christians were not allowed to build churches [or] hold high positions was totally wrong."

Pakistan’s charge of "disinformation" against the U.S. -- its closest military and economic assistance partner -- revealed Islamabad’s desire to protect Prime Minister Bhutto’s image in the "Christian" West. Bhutto and President Bush pledged at their June 1989 Washington summit, "We are now moral as well as political partners." But last month Bhutto was ousted from office and has been formally charged with abuse of power.

While church leaders kept silent on the State Department’s charge of discrimination, some populist Christian groups scrawled slogans calling for justice and rights for Christians on the walls of central Karachi and Lahore. Their protests, in dramatic contrast to the silence of church officials, stirred to the surface a long tradition of lay resentment against the higher clergy.

My interviews with Pakistani Christians about the discrimination charge revealed a growing antipathy between the senior hierarchy and the laity. The upper hierarchy, none of whom agreed to be quoted, acquiesces in the government’s denial and cites examples of Christians who in the past have served as senior judges, civil servants and ambassadors. Some church leaders explained that they had, above all, to protect their communications with Muslim leaders. Some also made caustic observations about their own flock. One bishop said many of the "competitive" Christians had emigrated to the US., Canada and Australia, leaving in Pakistan less capable Christians who charge discrimination to rationalize their lack of talent. "Show me a capable Christian and I’ll hire him," he said.

Laypeople and lower clergy allege that their clergy superiors are almost uniformly corrupt and that they accommodate the Muslim power game. There is also a spreading resentment of the authority invested in the Roman Catholic and Protestant bishops. Christian laity have blocked bishops who attempt to exploit the church’s large real estate holdings. The Protestant bishop of Karachi, for example, has been stopped twice in the past year by Christians who object to his plan to develop commercial space around the outer wall of St. Andrews, the second-largest Protestant church property in Karachi. In Quetta his plan to build 100 or more houses for poor Christians on church property is likewise stymied by local Christian resistance. Younis Khokhar, lay founder of the Fellowship of Believers (an outreach to interested Muslims) , asked, "Can anyone name a single bishop who doesn’t drive at least one Pajero?" (The Pajero, a Japanese-built luxury jeep, is the primary symbol of the nouveau riche.) Allegations abound that recent elections of several bishops of the Church of Pakistan have been bought.

The number of foreign mission workers in Pakistan is impressive, given the tortuous procedures required for obtaining resident and work visas. The indigenously led churches do not require foreign workers in administration, and the absence of any confessed strategy of witness and evangelism to the overwhelming Muslim majority would seem to minimize opportunities for foreigners to be useful.

Several hundred of these Western Christians are working with Christian organizations aiding the 3 million Afghan refugees and the indigenous poor. Their contribution to parish life may turn out to be as marginal as their assistance to the Afghans -- traditionally impervious to Christian witness.

Young faces from North America and Australia are offering assistance to the many Southern Baptist, independent Presbyterian and nondenominational congregations that make up the conservative right here. They usually are learning diligently one or more of the difficult native languages and are self-funded. They promote the faith through literature distribution (legal but difficult), training clinics and home Bible study. With local leaders absorbed in their real estate problems, these foreigners alone have the time, energy and resources to probe the legal and cultural barriers against proselytizing, evangelism and outreach. In view of the onerous restrictions in this predominantly Islamic society, it is not surprising that their enthusiasm sometimes leads them to steal sheep from other Christian pastures instead of preaching to Muslims.

Although conversion results are unknown -- only Christians who convert to Islam are news items -- foreign church funds do sustain the social service projects for the refugees, whether Muslim Afghans or the smaller numbers of’ Iraqi and Iranian Christian refugees. These funds spill over to help many poor Pakistani Christians who find little outreach otherwise from the Pakistan churches. Many services to the Christian poor, including drug education and rehabilitation programs, institutions for the handicapped and food programs are sustained by outside funding and the compassion of foreigners, particularly the omnipresent nuns. This promotes residual gratitude toward foreign Christians and highlights the leadership limits of the local officials. Whatever their exact number, Christians are leaven in deeply troubled Pakistan whose Muslim majority disallows increasingly the Prophet’s teachings about restraint from violence and his injunctions to honor the Ummah (religious community) Internecine Muslim murders are a daily occurrence in Pakistan, and, whatever the discrimination against Christians, it is more social and economic in nature and far less violent than what Muslims do to one another. Christian pastors are transfixed, however, with the fear of doing anything to stir the mullahs (religious teachers) against them and their flocks.

Most pastors believe the best way to keep Christian-Muslim relations calm is to maintain a low profile in terms of evangelism and gripes, to hunker down, protect the real estate from vultures without and within the community, maintain good relations with the Muslim power brokers and hope that the Christian poor will remain faithful. The same caution guarantees that no Christian voice is ever raised to counsel nonviolence, forgiveness and contrition in a society marked by tremendous outbursts of anger. Any idea of witness to the Muslim majority is muted. Any difference that Jesus and the gospel might contribute to social analysis is unexplored, and the church draws down the last deposits of goodwill and credit from its 19th-century legacy of schools and movements such as the YMCA. A senior Y official said, "The YMCA is still regarded with respect by many Muslims as a force for change when, in fact, the Y is rotten to the core." He felt the same about his church. "The people of God are not being what they could and should be. The bishops have Pajeros, the educated laymen are frustrated and drop out of church life, and the poor Christians are left to serve as sweepers.

The strategy of biding one’s time and enduring discrimination for fear that doing anything will only make matters worse can pass for prudence if there are positive trends in the general society. But the dynamics in Pakistan are not encouraging. The separatism that afflicts the Muslim majority has negative implications for the churches. Meanwhile, relations with India are deteriorating over the Kashmir problem -- and a third war between the two peoples would bring disaster to all religious communities. While President Bhulam Ishaz’s dismissal of Benazir Bhutto is arguably constitutional, no one doubts that the army now calls the shots. Its heightened influence should serve to dampen ethnic strife, and for a while Christianity’s many proud towers are safe from being torched through anarchy. But the army also ruled during the last two wars with India, and another violent round is now more likely. Should the two countries go to war again, the church spires of Lahore and Karachi may not stand long against a rain of Indian bombs.