Do Christians really need their representatives in Pakistani parliament?

Nasir Saeed

The debate over a “separate or dual electoral system” has been ongoing amongst Pakistani Christians for a long time. But until now there has been no concerted opinion on the matter.
Some people think the best option for Christians is the separate electoral system, which was introduced by the late general Zia ul Hague and has been in practice since. Even after his death Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments continued this practice and never paid any attention to minorities’ issues, or the demands for change to the electoral system.

In October 1999 General Pervez Musharraf took control of the country after a coup, and after a Supreme Court order, in October 2002 held general elections to elect members of national Assembly and provincial assemblies. Around 70 parties (all Muslim) participated in the elections and the elections were broadcast live by the media and thus Pakistan returned to democracy.

Some Christian candidates also participated in the election but none of them could win, even from those constituencies with a Christian majority. This rejection was alarming but nobody paid any attention to its causes and until today Christians don’t have a single elected Christian representative in Parliament.

General Musharraf introduced the proportionate representation system to ensure minorities’ presence in parliament. A new qualification criteria was also introduced for the candidates to have a minimum qualification of a BA degree, sidelining many. Several new faces appeared on the horizon of Christian politics, some who had no previous experience or knowledge of the issues. But somehow they reached parliament. Now there are several who believe that this is the best system for the minorities, while the majority has criticized this system.

I know several people who are of the strong opinion that Christians should ideally participate in the joint electoral system, but unfortunately keeping in view the role of Pakistani Christian MPs for the last several decades, I have come to the totally different conclusion that no matter what electoral system is in place, it will make no difference.

This is because the situation it is not the fault of the electoral system but because of a lack of vision and quality of leadership, determination and will from our politicians.

It is embarrassing that our festering issues which should have been raised in the Pakistani parliament long ago instead are being raised by the British and European parliamentarians in the House of Commons, House of Lords and European parliament. Recently United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has raised the issue of the biased and hateful curriculum against Christians and other religious minorities in the Pakistani textbooks.

Robert P. George, the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that school textbooks in Pakistan teach children intolerance and towards those of other religions.

He said the textbooks lack content on the rights of religious minorities and their positive contributions to the development of Pakistan.

This problem has existed for decades and several organizations like National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) and Pakistan Minorities Teachers’ Association (PMTA) have published widely available comprehensive studies on this issue. So why is it then that Christian MPs are not aware of these important issues, or is it that they are turning a blind eye?

This is not the only matter that I have never heard acknowledged, but there are several other underlying issues, like the blasphemy law, which is continuously being misused and is considered a root cause of Christians’ persecution and forced conversion of Christian girls to Islam.
It is something which every Pakistani MP is aware of, but no one dares touch it. Christians want that their representatives in parliament raise these issues because it is their responsibility, but sadly I see no hope.

I doubt that any Christian MP will ever dare to speak about these issues. Non-Christian MPs, Mr M P Bhandara and senator Sherry Rehman had dared in the past, while Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab openly criticised the law, and Christians will undoubtedly feel forever in debt to these leading lights and have a lot of respect for them in their hearts.

Recently British Christian MP Jim Shannon and his colleague raised the issue of the Easter attack in the House of Commons, and this was not the first time Christians’ persecution and the ongoing misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan was addressed in Parliament. Muslim MP Rehman Chishti, of Pakistani heritage, has even secured debates on the blasphemy law on more than one occasion.

On April 14 the European Parliament also criticised the worsening situation of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. Josef Weidenholzer, a professor of social policy, said this was not the first time that Pakistan was being discussed it in the European Parliament in the context of the state of minorities in the country.

Marie Christine Vergiat, a French politician, also stated that the Pakistan government supported terror groups, and called upon the EU to exert pressure on Pakistan by using the GSP agreements.

Dan Belder stated that the discourse of hate in Pakistani schoolbooks against minorities must be removed immediately. While Dr Charles Tannock, British MEP, an old friend of Pakistani Christians categorically stated: “We have debated religious extremism in Pakistan for some time now and I do hope there is now a will in this country for some change.”

British Peer, Lord Alton visited Thailand last year to obtain firsthand information of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers’ plight. There are some reports that Pakistani Christian MPs have been threatening and critical towards Christian asylum seekers who are exercising their right to freedom of movement, and seeking asylum in a safe country.

After thinking about it for a long time and comparing Pakistani Christian MPs insensitivity and European MPs’ empathy I have come to the conclusion that if our issues are to be raised and resolved by the British and European parliamentarians, and if our issues are to be discussed in the House of Commons, House of Lords and the European Parliament, then do we really still need Christians MPs in the Pakistani parliament who are actually weakening our case before the international community?

I believe that without Christian representatives in the Pakistani parliament our case will be much stronger, our issues will attract more attention and we will only have to look to the British and European MPs.

The Ahmadiyya community have a principal stand and they don’t have any representative in Pakistani parliament and I know their case is very strong as many American congressmen, senators, European parliamentarians and several international human rights organisations speak for them.