Imran Khan is the chairman of the newly emerged Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, a centrist party which, according to the party, aims to create a welfare state, where the state is responsible for education, health and employability of citizens.
This sounds like good news for Christians, who often struggle to access education, health care and dignified work because of the discrimination and attack they face from Islamic extremists.
However, Khan has not positioned himself as a champion for minority groups and religious freedom. In fact, he seems keen to ensure that Pakistan remains a strongly Islamic republic, with little protection for its non-Muslim citizens. Hours after Khan’s victory was confirmed, he spoke to the nation saying his preferred form of government is ‘the Islamic State as established by the Prophet Mohammad in Medina’.
Before the election, a Pakistani Christian leader told Open Doors, “Many Christians fear Imran Khan as the country’s leader as he has said he wants to return to jirga, a traditional assembly of leaders that make decisions by consensus and according to the teachings of Pashtunwali – a series of non-written ethical codes which predate modern laws and which prove a dangerous mix in combination with Sharia, the strict Islamic law.”
Khan has also spoken in support of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws – he’s quoted as saying, “I know this law is an inconvenience for some people like that poor woman Asia Bibi. But it is a law that is complete and I support it.”
Asia Bibi is a Christian mother-of-five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Zoe Smith, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors, said: “A death sentence is far more than an ‘inconvenience’ for Asia Bibi. The two politicians who spoke out about her unfair treatment and the unjust blasphemy laws were both shot dead, effectively silencing any criticism of the laws.”
Christians make up a tiny minority in Pakistan, and face discrimination and attack from Islamist extremists for their faith.
A local partner in Pakistan told Open Doors, “We prayed this government would not come in, but God had another plan. We see a new leader at the helm, who is rooted in the same old extremism that has tortured Christians for decades and the future looks ominous.
“We do prepare for violence and challenges in the months ahead. We need structural changes to the constitution to be heard better and to be safeguarded and for the playing field to be level and that is not a priority for this government.
“However, God has allowed this to happen. It can only be for the benefit of the church. We accept this and we will walk in truth and dignity and we will when necessary challenge the status quo, but at all times we will remain faithful to our values as Christians.”
Pakistan is number five on the Open Doors World Watch List. Conversion from Islam brings great shame to family and community, and danger for the new believer. Radical Islamic extremists monitor gatherings of converts. Historic churches have been subject to bomb attacks. All Christians suffer from institutionalised discrimination, with occupations that are seen as low, dirty and derogatory being officially reserved for Christians, most of whom are from the poorer classes. Islamic extremist groups, courted by political parties, the army and government, run thousands of schools capable of stirring up enmity towards religious minorities. Blasphemy laws target Christians in particular.