x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Pakistani Christians register with Islamic party

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam woos minority despite hard line on blasphemy laws and constitutional rights.

KARACHI // Punjabi songs blared as hundreds of men and boys crowded into a narrow street in Karachi's Azam Basti neighbourhood for a rally by an alliance of conservative and Islamist politicians who exhorted them to vote in today's national elections.

Dozens of party flags fluttered on the makeshift stage, which was guarded by two glowing red plastic lions, the symbol of front-runner Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, as the speakers took turns denouncing the secular ethnic-based party that rules Karachi.

"If you vote for us, the MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement] will be over!" a candidate for the Jamaat Islami roared to the crowd on Thursday night.

Among the onlookers stood Elvin Gill, leader of the minority wing of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur (JUI-F), Pakistan's largest Islamic party. Mr Gill is also a Pentecostal minister and lives in Azam Basti, home to Karachi's largest Christian community. With 23,000 people, it could prove a crucial swing demographic in this constituency.

While the JUI-F gives full-throated support to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws, which have been used as a justification for violence against Christians in Pakistan, it has also cast itself as a champion of minority rights and is courting Christian voters across the country.

It was one of the few parties to send supplies and workers to help rebuild a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore that was recently burned to the ground by a mob who claimed one of its residents had blasphemed against Islam.

Rights groups say religious minorities, already denied the full benefits of citizenship by the constitution, are increasingly vulnerable in Pakistan.

Mr Gill, who spent most of the night holding corner meetings with prospective Christian voters, said he joined the party for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons.

"I tell people in my church that if you are in our mullah party, nobody can say you are involved in blasphemy," he said. "It is protection."

In the last parliament, Aasia Nasir, a Christian MP with the party, dared to give a stern denunciation of the laws' misuse with no repercussions. When the Punjab governor Salman Taseer made similar statements in 2011 he was assassinated.

Mr Gill said Christians, who make up just 1.6 per cent of the population, would have a better chance of changing perceptions about their community if they became involved in the party.

"You must join with them to change the mullahs' feelings, to teach that hatred is not part of Islam," he said. "If they come to make good relations with Muslims, the religious people especially, their life will be better than before."

Mr Gill draws his inspiration from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the 19th-century Islamic reformist who urged Indian Muslims to seek a modern education and study Christianity in order to become closer to their British colonial rulers.

In Karachi, where Christian votes are generally thought to go to the more liberal secular parties such as MQM, Mr Gill's pitch rarely falls on receptive ears. He claims there are 500 Christian members of the JUI-F in the city, but that "some say you are a converter, that you changed your religion".

The Islamist parties' interest in Christians is partly electoral but also strategic, said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"Religious parties are unwilling to talk about reforming the blasphemy laws, and the constitution already discriminates, [which] they want to remain," she said. "So they believe that if parameters are set in society for the protection of minorities, they won't have to talk about legal equality."

But perhaps even this qualified support for religious minorities has run afoul of more hardline segments of Pakistan's Islamist movements. The JUI-F is the only religious party to have been targeted by the Pakistani Taliban in the run-up to today's polls.