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KARACHI, Pakistan -- Every Sunday, thousands celebrate Mass at St. Peter's, a three-floor, 21,000-square-foot Catholic church that's the biggest in Pakistan. Dressed in their best tunics and loose cotton pants, worshippers sit barefoot in the pew-less building -- a style adapted from nearby mosques -- as they sing hymns to the sounds of drums and a piano. As the sun sets, a light shines in a 24-hour prayer room, something common in Western nations but a rarity here.
The success of St. Peter's, which cost $3.8 million to build -- making it the most expensive in the nation when it opened two years ago -- has been hailed as a sign of progress for Christians and religious minorities. Yet beyond its bold size and growing attendance, the difficulties parishioners face stand out here as much as at any other non-Muslim house of worship in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. Guards are outside to protect worshippers from would-be suicide bombers and attackers. Prayers for recent Christian martyrs are said regularly during services. Priests use nonalcoholic wine during Holy Communion, partly because it's cheaper, but also to avoid inflaming Muslims who believe drinking is sinful.
While global leaders have focused efforts in this part of the world on fighting the increasing sway of extremists, activists and human rights observers have noticed a different problem spreading inside Pakistan: the targeting of religious minorities. This month, a Pew Research Center report named Pakistan, which is 96 percent Muslim, one of the most hostile nations for religious minorities. Pew placed the country among the top five overall for restrictions on religion, singling out its anti-blasphemy statutes. Courts frequently use such laws to give death or lifetime-jail sentences to minorities accused of insulting Islam. Often, their crime is as simple as openly professing their own faiths. A study on Pakistan from the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom counted more than 200 attacks among religious groups and 1,800 casualties resulting from religion-related violence between 2012 and mid-2013, one of the highest rates in the world.
The problem isn't limited to Christians. All religious minorities in Pakistan face daily reminders of their plight, including discriminatory laws, forced conversions, and bombs and shootings aimed at minority-sect Muslims, such as Shiites and Ahmadis. According to human rights groups, public school textbooks regularly demonize minorities and emphasize the nation's Islamic roots over contributions from people of other faiths. Labor studies have shown minorities stuck on the lower rung of the economy, often working as servants, sweepers and day laborers. Newspapers occasionally report on businesses that deny non-Muslim customers.
"Things have gone from bad to worse to very much worse," said Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan group that monitors religious rights abuses and advises the president, Congress and State Department on foreign policy.
But despite an overall grim picture, stories of minority empowerment are slowly growing, from sparkling new houses of worship like St. Peter's to burgeoning, organized self-defense efforts among non-Muslims. A host of interfaith activist movements is blossoming, pushing for multi-faith education and less violence, while gaining support from pastors and universities.
A handful of minority leaders are now speaking internationally in the media and through religious and human rights organizations. They hope diplomatic pressure from the U.S. -- a strident political ally and source of aid to the nation -- and global religious leaders can strengthen the climate for minorities here. A more tolerant Pakistan, they say, would translate into another goal for many: less tolerance for terrorists.
"The same people who have declared the West to be their enemy are the ones who have declared non-Muslims and even Shiite Muslims here to be the same," said Michelle Chaudhry, the founder of the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, a Pakistani nonprofit that focuses on promoting interfaith cooperation and education for non-Muslims. "As terrorism has gotten worse since Sept. 11, so has the situation among minorities."
It used to be different. Before British colonial India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, more than one-fifth of the population of what would become Pakistan was non-Muslim. Most fled to India during the creation of the Muslim state, though largely peaceful relations among faiths continued during Pakistan's early decades. But in 1978, the nation began a 10-year process of "Islamization" under military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. He pushed to convert secular laws into religious ones, installing Sharia courts and enacting anti-blasphemy statutes. Through the 1990s and 2000s, conservative Islamic movements gained cultural and political sway, subverting the region's historically more open approach to faith, including non-Islamic traditions.
Today, religious minorities total just 9 million among 183 million Pakistanis. The biggest groups are Christians and Hindus, each of which accounts for less than 2 percent of the population. Smaller are the numbers of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Bahá'ís, Jews and Ahmadi Muslims. Shiite Muslims make up about a quarter of Pakistanis, but they, too, find themselves increasingly persecuted by dominating Sunni factions.
Though Pakistan's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, reports of forced conversions to Islam, kidnappings of non-Muslims, job discrimination, blasphemy arrests and razings of minority houses of worship are frequent. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 34 people were charged with blasphemy in 2013. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reports that at least 16 people are on death row in the country for blasphemy, and 20 are serving life sentences.
Pakistanis recognize the religious tensions -- in a recent Pew survey, 57 percent singled out religious conflict as a major national problem. And some are taking matters into their own hands.
In Akhtar Colony, a poor, mostly Christian neighborhood, retired Pakistani navy officer Munawar Chouhan has offered free self-defense courses for amateur church security guards since early fall. His school caters exclusively to Christians in their teens and 20s, whom he recruits through newspaper ads, then trains out of an office. Chouhan drills volunteers in security sweep techniques, using diagrams and beat-up mannequins to demonstrate how to detect bombs and guns. They learn to spot bulky clothing, unfamiliar faces, and unclaimed bags and purses.
"There are always two sides to Pakistan and two sides to being a non-Muslim in this country," said Chouhan.
He began his classes after Pakistani Taliban-linked suicide bombers killed 78 worshippers and injured 130 others in September at a Catholic church in Peshawar, a northwestern provincial capital near Afghanistan. "For every good story, there's a bad one. We need to protect our own, or no one else will," Chouhan said.
A Catholic and a parishioner at St. Peter's, Chouhan, like most minorities, has adopted the Islamic greeting of "assalamualaikum" ("peace be upon you"). He has trained at least 75 guards, and dispatched them to churches around the city. He has no doubt that his program keeps suspicious characters away from houses of worship, though his students have yet to catch a would-be attacker. "For people that can feel helpless in being part of their religion, we are giving them a way to take charge again," he said.
The program is one of many. In Peshawar and Lahore, Christian leaders have mandated that churches train volunteer guards; some have added security fences and metal detectors. The Catholic Church -- Catholicism is Pakistan's biggest Christian denomination -- has started at least 15 city-based "community protection groups," ecumenical networks tasked with monitoring threats to local churches and human rights violations among Christians, such as coerced marriages to Muslims. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association, a group of former members of the army, now provides free guards outside dozens of churches around the country on Sundays.
"We are fighting for our survival," said William Sadiq, a Protestant activist who works with Chouhan and runs the Action Committee for Human Rights, a social service organization in Karachi. "If the extremists see more of us standing up for ourselves, they might begin to stand down."
Religious tensions haven't gone unnoticed among Pakistan's leaders. The government, which celebrates a National Minorities Day each August, regularly makes public statements supporting freedom of religion for Christians and other communities. During a speech in December, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lamented ongoing religious conflicts, and described Jesus as a role model for people of all faiths.
Pakistan maintains a federal Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, though the office is largely tasked with overseeing Islamic pilgrimages, such as the hajj to Saudi Arabia. A federal office dedicated to minority affairs was closed in 2011 after government authorities said minority issues were best dealt with on a local level.
In an interview, one of the highest ranking government officials who oversees minority issues dismissed the idea that non-Muslims face unique hurdles inside Pakistan. "As many problems as there are for minorities, they also exist for Muslims," said Pir Muhammad Amin-ul-Hasnat Shah, the nation's minister of state for religious affairs and interfaith harmony. "What's happening here is not discrimination against minorities, but there's simply a difficult state of affairs for everyone here in Pakistan."
Shah declined to comment on a spate of recent blasphemy arrests, such as one in January of a mentally ill man who a Pakistani court sentenced to death for saying he was Islam's prophet. Shah said legislators planned to discuss blasphemy statutes in upcoming meetings. "We are researching such issues," he said.
But minority leaders like Sadiq and Chouhan believe such assurances are often just lip service. Activists regularly complain about a lack of legal and police protection for religious minorities. A handful of successive legislative attempts to reform the nation's anti-blasphemy laws were promptly shut down after popular protests.
The sentiment is echoed among Catholic leaders, who say the violence they face is misdirected anger at the West, as Christians are blamed for drone strikes and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September attack in Peshawar, Bishop Joseph Coutts, Karachi's leading Catholic who oversees St. Peter's, demanded the government amp up church safeguards and "seriously tackle" intolerance that had reached "alarming proportions." Weeks later, during a visit to the Vatican for a conference, Coutts broadened his request, calling on international Christian leaders to "put pressure on the government to ensure the human rights of minorities."
Even small acts, such as the personal greetings Pope Francis sent to the world's Muslims during Ramadan, could help "dispel the image of the Christian West as an enemy of Muslims," the bishop said, and patch up a sour impression that grew during Pope Benedict XVI's reign. Benedict ignited outrage among Muslims after a speech in 2006 where he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who called Islam "evil and inhuman." In 2011, when the Vatican under Benedict called on Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy laws, protests against Christians erupted again.
Francis, who has been heralded for his largely successful outreach to non-Christians, could have a positive impact on the status of Catholics in Pakistan, said the Rev. Francis Gulzar, a priest at St. John's Catholic Church in Youhanabad. The community of 100,000 Christians is outside the major cultural capital of Lahore, a city where Christian-Muslim tensions have been on the rise.
Gulzar acknowledged that while international gestures are not the solution to problems among Pakistan's minorities, "if [Pope Francis] keeps speaking kindly about Islam, it could resonate to make Muslims have a better view of Christians in their own nation."
American outreach to Pakistan has always been a trickier beast. While the U.S. has asked for cooperation in the war on terrorism as a condition for providing aid -- a $33 million package to Pakistan was approved by the president in January -- requests from American organizations and Pakistani Christian denominations to the U.S. to restrict funds or exercise diplomatic pressure to protect minorities haven't been successful. Since 2002, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has unsuccessfully petitioned the State Department to name Pakistan a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom violations. The move would open up several options for the president, including putting in a formal request to Pakistan, recalling the American ambassador and economic sanctions. Other countries on the list include Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
Human rights groups also are making another request: for the White House to appoint a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a State Department officer who acts as the top international watchdog on religion. In particular, they want the president to name someone who is familiar with religious freedom in areas such as Syria and Pakistan. The position has been open since the prior ambassador, the Rev. Suzan Cook, resigned in October. The White House declined to give a timeline for a new appointment, and the office, which Congress created in 1998, has been criticized as ineffective.
John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University who focuses on international Christian-Muslim relations, said policy discussions have shied away from religious rights in Pakistan in part because of disagreements over how far U.S. influence should go and fears of backlash.
"There are circles in D.C. that say 'should we really be involved in religion? … Should we put conditions on helping an economy that's hurting?'" said Esposito, who has traveled frequently to the region and taken part in interfaith exchanges in Pakistan. "It's a sensitive territory. You don't want the U.S. or anyone else to take too heavy-handed of an approach or they will be seen as meddling ... Pakistanis are also making huge strides in interfaith harmony on their own despite hurdles."
Case in point: In Lahore, where local authorities last year banned a private grammar school from teaching a comparative religion course, the city's Center for Dialogue and Action launched an interfaith cooperation course and national speaker series at Forman Christian College in January. The first of its kind in the nation, the class is called Ilm, Adab aur Insaaniat (Knowledge, Decorum and Humanity).
In a few large cities, university students have formed chapters of Interfaith Youth Action, a growing multi-faith nonprofit that hosts religious dialogues and tours houses of worship. In December, Rawalpindi's St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the seat of Islamabad's Catholic diocese, held three Christmas Masses in Urdu and English, and showcased caroling by its popular English-language choir, now in its third year.
Muslims have also joined in the fight to protect minorities. Last fall, dozens of activists with the group Pakistan for All traveled between cities, forming human chains during Sunday services around churches throughout the country, and ending their tour at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad. Wherever it went, the group chanted one of its slogans: "one nation, one blood." The demonstrations brought international media attention.
Questions remain about whether rising efforts among minorities to organize themselves, coupled with support from Muslims and pressure from outsiders will work in favor of non-Muslims in Pakistan. Will shining the light on minorities simply draw more negative attention to groups that historically have operated quietly inside the nation's borders?
To activists like Chouhan, the Karachi Catholic who teaches the city's youth in his security academy, the benefits outweigh the risks. "All we can do is live day by day and try to help each other where we can," he said. "All we can do is pray and hope for a better future."