MUMBAI – Ahead of parliamentary elections in the world’s second largest Muslim nation set for Feb. 8, the president of Pakistan’s Catholic bishops’ conference is demanding that religious minorities should be respected and the country’s blasphemy laws should be repealed.
At the moment, it’s not entirely clear that the balloting actually will take place on Feb. 8, given that Pakistan’s Senate has endorsed a measure to delay the vote, citing both “prevailing security conditions” as well as cold weather.
The South Asian country of 241 million people has been in political and economic turmoil for some time, and now faces a choice between the Pakistan Muslim League, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party, headed by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zadari.
Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad, President of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told Crux that although Christians are less than two percent of the national population, they could make an important difference in the results.
“The elections are scheduled for Feb. 8, and we’re not expecting anything new,” Shukardin said.
“However, a Christian should be elected, not selected, as ‘selected’ implies a kind of slavery, we should be eligible on our own merit,” he said, referring to a long-standing complaint among Pakistan’s minority communities of being excluded from political life.
“We are demanding a double vote, meaning voting for our individual candidate and voting for a party,” Shukardin said. “There are around 15-20 places where Christians are in a significantly higher percentage, and this could swing the vote.”
Further, Shukardin argued, the concerns of religious minorities in Pakistan should be part of the electoral platform.
“Minorities should be respected, discriminatory policies should be struck down, inconsistent application of domestic laws safeguarding human rights and against societal discrimination and the blasphemy laws should be repealed,” he said.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the most controversial in the world, with critics charging they’re often used to harass and intimidate religious minorities. One oft-cited example is Asia Bibbi, an illiterate Catholic woman who spent almost a decade on death row after a charge of blasphemy in 2010 and who was eventually forced to seek refuge in Canada.
In addition, Shukardin said, candidates in the Pakistani elections should take notice of the concerns of the country’s young people.
“Our youth have no future, they have no voice, their aspirations are not heeded to, they receive only tokenism at the federal and provincial levels,” he said.
“While the Government listens, in practice nothing happens,” said the 62-year-old Shukardin.
In general, Shukardin said, Christians are safe to practice the faith in Pakistan despite the broad social challenges.
“Christians enjoy religious freedom, [and] we enjoy the freedom to worship etc.” he said. “The Christmas season was celebrated with solemnity, festivity and security all over.”
Shukardin noted that he’s been named to a government body that deals with social conflicts.
“The government has formed the Peace Committee all over, and I have been appointed to the peace committee … In case of anything, people can contact the peace committee immediately,” he said.