The new leader promises change. But Christians aren’t celebrating yet
In a televised speech made after his victory in Pakistan’s elections, Imran Khan promised that his policies would not be for the elite but for the “oppressed, the under-privileged and the minorities”.
For Christians, his victory could herald better times – but, given his party’s past record and his remarks on the campaign trail, many faithful are reserving judgment.
Fr Francis Gulzar, a parish priest in Lahore, is one of those encouraged by Khan’s vision for change. “He spoke very well about wanting to build new relationships with the US and other countries,” he said. “It is clear that the people of Pakistan have rejected religious parties so we – Christians and others – have faith in the future.”
Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam, vicar apostolic of Quetta, stressed that Khan’s new party – Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) – has broken the mould of the two-horse political contest between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, which between them have held power for so many years.
The bishop, whose Diocese of Quetta has seen some of the worst violence against minorities, including against Shia Muslims as well as Christians, said: “Khan seems to be people-orientated. He is definitely a change and let us hope that he is a change for the better.”
But a quick look into the PTI party and its record as part of a coalition government in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly North-West Frontier Province) gives cause for concern. For instance, the government reportedly failed to release compensation for families bereaved by a bomb blast at a Peshawar church in 2013 that left 157 people dead. It also approved only three per cent job quotas for religious minorities compared with the five per cent quota in the rest of the country.
More worryingly, at a press conference last month Khan vowed to defend Section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code, which imposes the death penalty on anyone caught disrespecting the Muslim prophet Mohammad. This bodes ill for Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five appealing against a death sentence for blasphemy, and the many other innocent victims of a law that is widely abused by those carrying out vendettas.
Many Christians hope that, given the electoral influence of hardline pro-Islamist groups, what Khan does in office will be different from what he has said on the campaign trail. They are willing to give him a chance.
Anglican lay canon Yaqub Masih, whose New Horizons initiative helps build Muslim-Christian relations, cited reports linking Khan’s party with Islamic groups, but even so he remained hopeful, saying: “What Imran Khan said before becoming prime minister and what he does now could turn out to be very different. We are all keeping our fingers crossed.”
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK)
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