ASSIST News Service

Joseph Francis, the National Director of Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), has said that Christian persecution and discrimination with minorities surged during former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's rule.

Mr Francis said that the Christians of Pakistan suffered enormous injustices, discrimination and persecution during Mr Musharraf's rule.

"Christians were not immune from persecution and raw treatment during the tenure of presidents that preceded Musharraf, but the scale of Christian persecution was worst during Musharraf's rule."

- Joseph Francis, the National Director of Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

"Christians were not immune from persecution and raw treatment during the tenure of presidents that preceded Musharraf, but the scale of Christian persecution was worst during Musharraf's rule," he said. 

Mr Francis put forward statistics of Christian persecution during Musharraf's rule. He claimed that over 55 churches were attacked and maintained that 58 Christians were murdered while 275 were wounded. Pointing to the misuse of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws, he said that 212 blasphemy cases were registered from 12th October, 1999, to 18th August, 2008.

Mr Francis said that some 10 blasphemy-accused had been killed extra-judicially during Mr Musharraf's stint as president. Among the victims of blasphemy-related extra-judicial killings, he said four of them were Christians while the rest were Muslims.

Mr Musharraf's popularity plummeted when he sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on 9th March, 2007. The President's move of seizing emergency powers on 3rd November, 2007, further dented his popularity. The President made frequent promises on shedding his military uniform but he did not deliver on them. He took off his military uniform after coming under intense international pressure. The victory of Mr Musharraf's opponents on 18th February, 2008, elections proved to be the last nail in Mr Musharraf's coffin.

Calls for Mr Musharraf to quit the president's office became strident two weeks ago, culminating at the decision of the ruling coalition to impeach president Mr Musharraf if he did not resign. Mr Musharraf resigned from the office of president on 18th August to avoid impeachment turmoil.

Mr Francis said that Pervez Musharraf should have resigned much earlier than 18th August when he had started becoming unpopular with people of Pakistan.

Disputing former Pakistani President Musharraf's claim that he had empowered Pakistani minorities, Mr Francis said minorities on the contrary were discriminated against during President Musharraf's rule.

He criticised Mr Musharraf for introducing a host of constitutional amendments to prolong his rule. How the former President could justify his claim of empowering minorities when he did not even institute a single constitutional amendment to bring minorities at par with majority, he argued.

"Our personal laws continue to be violated," he said. "No amendment has been made in Minorities Personal Laws including Marriage Act, Divorce Act and Inheritance Act during former the President's rule."

He also slammed Pervez Musharraf for not heeding to Pakistan National Christian Party's demand of amending article 41 of the constitution of Pakistan which, he stated, says, "A person shall not be qualified for election as president unless he is a Muslim of not less than 45-years-of-age and is qualified to be elected as member of the National Assembly."

Mr Francis has submitted a written petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He says that he expects a hearing on the petition after the "restoration of judges."

Mr Francis said that the former Pakistan President Musharraf announced that there would be 33 per cent of the seats for women before 2002 elections. "However, no seats were reserved for minority women," he lamented.

He said that the minorities' councilors were worst hit under Musharraf's Devolution Plan. "They (the minority councilors) neither have power nor any funds," he said. "They are at the mercy of their respective Nazims (Mayors)."

Mr Francis said that if Musharraf ever wanted to empower minorities he could have enacted a law under which each political party of the country was supposed to award at least 10 per cent direct party tickets to minorities.

"He had lost popularity with masses. There was a general opinion in the country that he should go."

- Bishop Samuel Azariah.

"Reserved seats for minorities have not increased since the creation of Pakistan and Musharraf's rule was no exception," he said.

Mr Francis was of the view that the former President should not be credited for replacing Separate Electorate System for minorities with a Joint Electorate System.

"Musharraf introduced the Joint Electorate System for minorities after knuckling under international pressure," he alleged.

Following Mr Musharraf's resignation on 18th August, Chairman Senate Muhammad Mian Soomro has taken over as acting president. According to Pakistan's constitution the new president has to be elected within 30 days.

Asked which party's presidential candidate should become next president, Mr Francis said, "Whoever becomes next president, he is likely to remain indifferent toward Pakistani Christians."

Mr Francis dubbed the next 30 days "very critical" for Pakistan. Asked if Islamic fundamentalism would surge in Pakistan after Mr Musharraf's disappearance from the political scene, he expressed fears that Islamists would become "more detrimental" for the country in the absence of President Musharraf.

He dispelled the impression that Pervez Musharraf had employed steps to ameliorate the lot of Pakistani minorities. Mr Musharraf confronted radical Islamists because this is what the U.S had expected of him. "He had thrown his lot with the US President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks in USA," said Mr Francis. "Musharraf's role in war on terror did not improve minorities' situation."

Bishop Samuel Azariah of the Diocese of Riwand, Church of Pakistan, said that Mr Musharraf made the right decision to resign. "He had lost popularity with masses. There was a general opinion in the country that he should go."

Asked how he rated Mr Musharraf as president vis-à-vis Pakistani Christians, the Bishop said, "He did a few things which benefited Pakistani Christians."

He hailed Mr Musharraf for introducing Joint Electorate System for Pakistani minorities.

Asked if he backed constitutional amendment in article 41 of the constitution of Pakistan, so that every Pakistani could run for presidential elections, the Bishop said there was no reason why he would not back such a proposal.

"Every Pakistani irrespective of his faith should be entitled to run in the presidential elections. This issue is not religious, but that of equality for all," he said.

In reply to a question, he said that next 30 days would see "tough negotiations between coalition partners." The Bishop stated that it would not be easy for them to forge consensus on a presidential candidate.

"The political parties' leadership has become mature over the years. I hope they can agree on a consensus candidate," said Bishop Samuel.

Asked how Mr Musharraf's resignation would affect Islamic militancy, he said that Mr Musharraf's departure would make "no difference to Islamic fundamentalism."

"Every Pakistani irrespective of his faith should be entitled to run in the presidential elections. This issue is not religious, but that of equality for all."

- Bishop Samuel Azariah.

When asked if he was in favor of a repeal of article 58-2 (b) that empowers Pakistani president to dissolve assemblies, the Bishop said that the article was meant to put check and balance in place, but the article had been "frequently abused and misused" by some of Musharraf's predecessors.

A renowned Christian professor, Anjum James Paul, who also happens to be chairman of Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association while talking to ANS said he and his like-minded friends had agitated when Pervez Musharraf had taken over in a bloodless military coup on 12th October, 1999. He said they had protested since Musharraf had violated constitution of Pakistan by seizing power and his action was undemocratic and unconstitutional.

He appreciated Mr Musharraf for giving Pakistani minorities the Joint Electorate System. Reciprocating a question, Anjum Paul said he would like next president to come from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

"It is in the spirit of democracy that the next president comes from the PPP," he said.

Professor Anjum also called for repeal of article 58 2 (b) of the constitution of Pakistan.

Sheraz Khurram Khan has been reporting from Pakistan for ASSIST News Service on Christian persecution and minorities' situation since 2005. He is also a representative of the International Press Association (IPA), USA.