Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | PESHAWAR, Pakistan Washington has tied itself, albeit reluctantly, to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. But with Musharraf's popularity falling and hostility to America rising, the United States must remember that the friendship is tenuous at best. The stares greeting Westerners are sometimes cold even at the capital airport. They turn icy in more distant locations. A burqa-clad resident of Peshawar, which lies near the Afghan border, scolded her male relatives for allowing me and two other Westerners to approach their homes.
"They are not Muslims, they are bad people," she said.
Pakistan styles itself an "Islamic Republic." The elite pays only lip service to Muslim values, but Osama bin Laden represents the hard face of Islam.
Women in burqas cross busy streets. Men wear traditional baggy pants and long shirts; many sport beards and hats. There are Christians, too, but Pakistan's beleaguered Christian community accounts for barely 2 percent of the population. Religious persecution has worsened since Sept. 11.
"They blame us because Christians are linked to America," explains Emanuel S. Khokha, the 41-year-old pastor of a small Methodist congregation in Lahore.
"Discrimination is everywhere," the resident of one poor neighborhood told me. Christian children are often ostracized in public school. "They don't want to be friends with Christians," one 12-year-old told me.
A young bank employee was fired by her Muslim supervisor, who disliked her faith. Jobs and opportunities are offered to Muslims first. Muslims restrict charity to Muslims. Aid must come either from within the impoverished Christian community itself or outside groups, such as Christian Freedom International.
More serious is pervasive government discrimination. "If a Christian wants a service in a government office, he can't get it," complains Khokha.
The very poverty of the Pakistani state encourages discrimination. "Our government is also poor, so it doesn't supply Christian people," said one impoverished Christian.
One small Christian community in Lahore sits astride electrical transmission lines. Nearby lie well-served Muslim neighborhoods.
"We have applied for electricity many times," one resident told me.
But the government told the 70 families that connecting would cost $7,000, an impossible sum.
Some Christian children find themselves barred from school by local officials.
"We can't get in," one squatter on government land told me, though they provide for the Muslims.
Even in school, Christian children must learn and pass the subject Islamia, which teaches the tenets of Islam.
"You can't graduate without it," explains Shagufta Irene Samuel, general manager of the Technical Services Association, a Christian rehabilitation group.
Pakistan's poor enjoy little security of land tenure; most at risk are Christians. One community of about 50 families in Lahore has spent 35 years in makeshift homes on army land; some inherited their dwellings from their parents.
Yet the government refuses to release the land and destroyed a small church they built. The Muslim neighborhood next door is also on army property, but its members were allowed to lease their land and construct a mosque.
Moreover, access to government employment, sadly the best option in a grossly overpoliticized economy, is also limited.
"We apply for the jobs," even menial ones, and "we can't get them," one poor resident told me.
The government similarly skews foreign aid, directing benefits toward Muslims. With few countervailing private opportunities in a state-dominated economy, most Christians are locked into poverty.
Although Christians are largely left alone in their own areas, not so where the faiths mix.
"Muslims call if we have a meeting, and we get persecuted," complains Khokha.
Even worse is criminal prosecution. For instance, Pervez Masih, a Christian teacher, was imprisoned last year after answering a student's questions about Mohammed's less-than-perfect life.
"A lot of blasphemy cases are brought against Christians," complains TSA's Samuel. Converts in Islamic Pakistan face death. For this reason, Yousaf Masih, a member of Khokha's congregation, and his family recently received political asylum in America.
Nor is violence limited to apostates. Last October, gunmen stormed a church in Bahawalpur and slaughtered 15 Christians. More recently, murderous militants invaded a church attended by Westerners in Islamabad.
Religious persecution hinders the development of a more secular political culture that would provide a stronger barrier to Islamic fundamentalism. Similar intolerance is evident in Pakistan's international relations.
After Wimbledon, the Pakistan Tennis Federation ordered Pakistani player Aisamul Haq Qureshi to stop playing with doubles partner Amir Hadad, an Israeli.
"It is not just about tennis," explained Khawaja Saeed Hai, federation senior vice president.
Of course, the Musharraf government is better than a fundamentalist alternative. But only barely so. Indeed, Musharraf is losing support from educated and liberal elites for blatantly rigging the upcoming election. In doing so, he is also dragging down America's reputation.
For helping to contain the murderous impulses of a Medieval theology hostile to human life and dignity, Musharraf deserves U.S. support.
Washington, nevertheless, should distance itself from a regime whose legitimacy is eroding daily.
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