As Pakistan's main churches held special prayers in memory of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor assassinated for his opposition to a law that punishes insult to Islam by death, Christians in Pakistan spoke of their feelings that they are in a precarious position in their own country - writes Xavier William.
"Religion in our country has always been a sensitive issue but after the brutal killing of Salman Taseer, we as a minority group feel that the less we talk, the better it is," said Amna Ayaz, a teacher, adding that with the recent level of intolerance in Pakistani society, she feels it is difficult to decide whether it is safer to "speak less" or keep silent.
Ayaz spoke with ENInews at Lahore Cathedral, the main Protestant church of Lahore, where on Sunday, 16 January, worshippers and members of civil society gathered in memory of Taseer and to counter rising extremism in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Taseer, who was killed on 4 January by one of his security guards, was calling for a review of the blasphemy law after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death. Taseer had visited Bibi, who is still in prison. Other churches also held special services for Taseer.
At Lahore Cathedral, the atmosphere was sombre even as the church was lit with candles and adorned with flowers. In the centre a picture of Taseer was placed, surrounded with flowers.
Bishop John Alexander Malik said, "We condemn the assassination of governor Taseer who fought for the rights of minorities in Pakistan. It seems that raising voices against extremism is getting harder."
University student Imran Azeem said in an interview that "in college I try to avoid a discussion on the subject but it is difficult to avoid it especially if you are a student of mass media."
In a heated argument just days after the governor's murder, Azeem faced criticism. "I was defending Taseer's act of going to Asia Bibi but my class fellows started [to express] hostility over [the blasphemy law] ... Here, we take everything very personally and don't want to listen to the other person's point of view. This is actually saddening because the space for minorities like us is shrinking.
"Even the professor sided with them and just shunned my outlook. I think that's a little unfair to youngsters like me. We will eventually leave this land and go where we will have the liberty to speak, at least, " Azeem said.
Sana Tanveer, an entrepreneur, said: "When I saw the people justifying [Taseer's] murder and siding with the killer, I just couldn't comprehend why in these times and age, we have this cave-mentality. One of my colleagues asked me rather teasingly, if Taseer was following an American agenda. I just asked him if Asia is an American? Are all those being victimised or slaughtered in the name of blasphemy Americans?
"We as Christians are not considered Pakistanis but Americans and ... now we want to silence all minority rights activists like Taseer," Taveer said.
"Taseer's courage shows his love and concern for minorities," Father John Xavier said. "He raised a voice for the oppressed classes." Xavier said he feels that the divide between the extremists and moderate circles of Pakistan is deepening and minorities and the oppressed classes will be feeling more insecure now, as the state fails to end this phenomenon.
Ayesha Kamran, a female member of the provincial assembly who belongs to a minority, said Taseer's killing shows that to raise voices for the minority and human rights is difficult in Pakistan, especially in a situation when the country is gripped by extremism and religious fanaticism." She said that Taseer was a true representative of "Jinnah's Pakistan" and his mission will continue.
Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in his August 11, 1947 speech to the first constituent assembly of the country set the agenda for Pakistan, urging full freedom and respect of all communities' rights in the state.
"We will not bow down and let the extremists succeed in spreading their agenda in Pakistan," Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities, adding, "unscrupulous elements want to dismantle peace and harmony in Pakistan." Bhatti asked liberal and progressive forces to come forward and join hands to eradicate all those forces that want to harm peace and stability.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]