Sunday, November 05, 2006

Interview: A Christian Citizen of Pakistan

Are minority Christians discriminated against in Pakistan? Are they free to pray in their churches? Do they enjoy the same opportunities as their Muslim countrymen?

[The interviewer, Mayank Austen Soofi, was introduced to Mr. Tehman Lall, a young Lahore-based MBA student, during his trip to Pakistan in September, 2006.]

I'm glad to have Mr. Tehman Lall with me. Mr. Lall, you are a Christian citizen of a Muslim Pakistan. Are you a pious believer?

Hello Mayank. To be honest, I'm not very religious, but I do consider myself a practicing Christian. There are, however, some weak and strong points in the way I practice my faith, but that I believe is every individual's personal choice.

A Catholic Church in the Heart of Lahore*

Who are in your family? Please tell us about them.

I have my parents - Philip and Priscilla. Their young lives were different from mine. They grew up and got married during an era when Pakistan was relatively a better place.

I'm not boasting, but my parents happen to be some of the very few respected and well-educated Christians left here in Pakistan. Most of the good families have migrated to the US or Canada. My father is a known figure in corporate Pakistan while my mother heads a women graduate college in Lahore.

I have two sisters. Sandhya lives in California while the younger Ratna works in an Islamic multinational bank.

Mr. Tehman Lall (right) with Family

Tehman, I found the comment about your parents having a different life rather interesting. What about your life? How was the environment you grew up in?

We children were raised with good Christian values. In fact my parents are living examples of those ideals. But at the same time we are secular in outlook, very different from traditional Pakistani households, Christian or Muslim.

Now let's come to the meat of this interview. How does Pakistan treat its minorities? What is the attitude towards Christians, Hindus and Sikhs?

Well, objectively speaking, minorities do have the legal right of practicing their religion. There are churches, temples, and gurudwaras (Sikh temples) for most of the Christian, Hindus, and Sikhs respectively. We are free to go there and do our prayers.

But in recent years, fanatic Islamic factions have tried to create religious unrest and terror for the minorities, especially towards Christians. Rape, blasphemy charges, and church attacks have increased over the years. But these are more prevalent in the rural and semi-urban areas of Pakistan.

Do you feel Christians are discriminated against? Do you have any personal experience of this?

Christians are not discriminated against overtly on a large scale but there have been and will remain instances of minority discrimination in this country. I have no personal experience of such discrimination but my father and my aunt's husband had.

My father was due to become the National Director of a prestigious management training institute but was succeeded by a junior. There was obviously a lot of politics involved, but it all revolved around religion. How could a Christian be at a senior governmental post! My father subsequently resigned. Something similar happened to my uncle, too. He was employed in the Foreign Service.

A Panoramic View of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore

I wonder if it is an apt observation that Christians here are second rate citizens.

Sorry Mayank, I won't back your observation. It's my belief that if one behaves and lives like a second rate citizen then he will be treated like one. Christians are given voting rights in national elections and share almost the same constitutional rights as Muslims.

There are Christians occupying senior posts in the corporate, government, and education sectors of this country. True, there have been people who had to face discrimination, but there are many who fought back and rose to a higher status in the society.

Is it true that the worth of a Christian witness in a Pakistani court of law is half of that of a Muslim man?

It is indeed true. According to the Islamic law of Shariat, which is implemented in the Pakistani courts, a non-Muslim's testimony is considered incomplete in many cases. It is only considered valid under the Pakistan Penal Code which entails Criminal Law as well.

Cross Looms High in the Citadel of the Crescent - Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore

In international media, we frequently read reports of violent attacks against Pakistani minorities, especially on Christians. Do you have a relative, or somebody you were acquainted with, who was a Christian and had to suffer violent attacks due to his religion?

I do not know anyone personally but there have been cases where uneducated young Christian boys have been tortured and killed by Muslims for reasons of blasphemy.

There have been also reports of forcible conversion to Islam. Tehman, do you have any relative who converted to Pakistan's state religion?

No, Mayank. I do not have any such relative nor do I know anyone personally who converted to Islam.

I know it's a private question but would you have preferred to be born as a Muslim in Pakistan? Life is less complicated if one belongs to the majority religion of his native country, whether the nation is religious or secular.

Well, considering the religious turmoil the world is facing I would have preferred to be born a Christian, and if it is all right to confess - somewhere in Europe!

But if the basis of religion is the betterment of mankind, then why should anyone opt to convert to other faiths? Why not instead read and understand all faiths with an open mind? Animals, as we know it, probably don't abide by any religion, and yet they live peacefully, much more than us humans.

That is well said. You are an educated, eloquent man and, considering your background, quite well-off. Obviously, the state of Christians in Pakistan can't be that bad?

Mayank, I'm educated and well-off because my parents worked their way up and made it possible. Unfortunately, a large part of the Christian minority in Pakistan belongs to the lower-middle class who have had to go through our degenerative and regressive education system.

But now, many young Christian graduates, both male and female, are aspiring to be professionals. Many of them hold degrees and teach in Christian institutes as well as work for NGOs. And there are also a small proportion of Christians working in big multinational companies.

Since it is unwise to generalise the state of Pakistani Christians by conversing with you alone, I'll try to desist from making a definite judgment. What views do you hold of your fellow co-religionists? Are they mostly poor, jobless, and uneducated as it is made out to be?

As I said earlier, a large part of them belongs to the lower-middle class. Most of them are illiterate and live in ghetto-like Christian colonies.

Let me give you a clearer idea of Pakistani Christians. Out of ten Christians, for instance, you'll find three who clean the sewers, sweep the streets, and work as alcohol buying agents; three who work as teachers in schools and colleges; two employed as clerks; one as a well-educated working professional; and the last as a high-ranking government official or as a senior doctor.

Of course, this is not an absolute representation of Christians, but you'll get an idea.

Yes, it helps in understanding the Christian society here. But is there a Christian leadership in Pakistan? Do Christians have a political organisation or a common platform from where they make themselves heard?

The leadership is in the form of our church leaders: Bishops, Priests, etc. Quite frankly, they have rarely stood up for Christian rights, especially for those who were victims of the state's legislative atrocities, but there have been some brave priests who did fight for our rights.

As for the political organisations, there are not many and the ones which do exist are unfortunately a bit too political and often known to over-politicise issues for there own benefits.

Were you upset when Pope Ratzinger recently quoted that Islam was spread by the sword? Or were you more upset by the violent reaction of the Muslims?

I had pretty much expected the reaction of the Muslims, but was upset about the Pope later shifting his stance. If he thought whatever he'd said was true, he should not have apologised to the Muslim community. Instead, he should have given a reasoned clarification justifying his statement and the purpose behind it. Either that or he should not have said anything which he couldn't justify or defend publicly.

That makes sense. Let's shift to more pleasant things, like who is your greatest living Pakistani hero?

I think (cricketer) Imran Khan is perhaps the best thing Pakistan could have asked for in this decade. And I say that in a sporting, social, and political context.

Another internationally prominent person coming to my mind is Salman Ahmed, the lead-member of the rock band Junoon. He has done far more than others to give Pakistan a more secular and realistic image. Otherwise, everyone thinks that we are a country swarming with terrorists and fanatics.

Tell us five things you love most about your country?

Mayank, five is a very large number for me in this context. I probably like just two things that also happen to be the most valued cultural traits here: one is hospitality, especially in rural areas, and the second is our respect for elders.

Okay, how about five things you will like to change about Pakistan?

Eradicate all fanatic and extremist factions, remove the prevalent Maulvi culture, cut the armed forces by half, provide progressive education to the youth, and probably introduce public-execution as means of stricter law enforcement in this lawless land.

Tehman, I have reservations about your idea of public executions, but I do hope that the rest of your wishes do come true. This has been an enlightening interview. You are young. What are your future plans?

Lord knows what I aspire to do later in life, but I could tell you where I plan to be in about another five year's time: getting another specialised degree from a foreign university after having worked for about 3-4 years and then settling in the west.

You want to emigrate to West! Why? Why not stay in Pakistan?

Mayank, I'll love to stay in Pakistan if there was even a slightest inclination towards some sort of positive change in our society and politics. However, considering the past and the current situation, God only knows how long it will take for the world to stop seeing this country as a 'failed state' and as the 'most corrupt nation.'

So being a practical person, I wish to settle in the west for my family's betterment and for my own sake, too. There are not many opportunities here. Frankly speaking, it has always been my sincere wish to reside in some part of Europe at some point in my life.

A Nation's Loss - A Family Intending to Leave

Good for you, Tehman. Do not forget to invite me for Café au lait once you are living in your Paris apartment. Meanwhile thanks for this interview.

You're welcome, Mayank. Thanks for talking to me.

*Pictures of the Lahore Cathedral were taken by the interviewer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am an American teaching Pakistani culture and language to US service members. I have a faculty member who is a member of the Christian minority in Pakistan and seems to have a very negative view of the treatment of Christians and other minorities there. She is also very good at manipulating and in some cases abusing a system that looks sympathetically at these minority members from Pakistan, who in many cases have claimed religious or political asylum in the US. One way she abuses this system is that whenever she has a disagreement with other faculty members (those who are Muslims or non-Christians) from Pakistan, she complains to her American bosses that she is still being discriminated by her Pakistani colleagues!