It is 11 a.m. in Gujar Khan, Pakistan, and business is slowly picking up pace at the shops around a plot that once housed 20 corpses.
At first glance, the bazaar looks like any other rustic market of south Asia. A narrow alley separates a small paint store from the garbage dump at one corner of the site and a scrap shop on the other. The only remnants of Gora Qabristan — literally transliterated as “white (skinned) graveyard” — are logs of rosewood trees piled above in a corner. The trees were cut in September, but the construction on the less than one-fourth acre area was stopped after parishioners of the Christian Study Center, a small chapel, held a protest at the press club.
“I was passing through the bazaar at midnight when I saw laborers digging. We gathered at the police station and stopped the work, but the foundations were already 3 feet deep,” said Javed Masih, one of the protestors, who identifies himself as a Christian.
The local Christians stopped using the cemetery 12 years ago when they were beaten at the funeral of Masih’s aunt. “The local shopkeepers were denying her burial. We sought the help of police to give her last rites,” Masih said. “There was a butcher’s shop above the grave for several months.”
No candles were placed in the disputed graveyard of Gujar Khan, a town that is home to about 220 Christian families, on All Souls Day. The Church of Pakistan now owns the land. Akram Khursheed, a member of the parish council, along with Masih and a Protestant elder, has filed a land encroachment case against the Muslim shopkeepers.
“We are weak, but it was important to take a stand or else it would be too late for the coffins dating back to the two world wars and a few from the last decade still buried there. Neither the dead nor alive Christians are safe anymore. The need of interfaith harmony has never been so crucial,” Khursheed said.
Discrimination in death
The Catholic Church has long condemned the lack of political will to address the persecution of minorities. Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of nearly 180 million people, say they face discrimination and atrocities on account of religious intolerance after the promulgation of sections of the Pakistan Penal Code that carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.
In its 2013 annual report, the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s National Commission for Justice and Peace counts at least two Christian graveyards desecrated by Muslim landlords in 2011. A portion of one of them is now part of a housing plan of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
The Christians of Pasrur, another city in Punjab, for about five years have been fighting their own legal battle to prevent encroachment of one of their graveyards. The government erected the boundary walls of the city’s 3-acre cemetery 25 years ago, but now it has been damaged and some local politicians are claiming ownership of a portion of the property.
“The area is now engulfed by houses and its value has quadrupled. They don’t care about the sanctity of our graves,” said Sudheer Jamal, former general secretary of Christian Welfare Society, a nongovernmental organization.
“Normally they use one of the following tactics to occupy cemeteries: blocking the road to the graveyard or extending their farms. Christians are poor, mostly they are in debt to the landlords or afraid of blasphemy charges.”
The commission for justice and peace reports that blasphemy accusations in 2012 rose to 113 as compared to 79 in 2011, though Muslims were accused far more often (94 cases) than Christians (12) or Ahmadis (five) under the blasphemy laws. The report states that 23 Christians and three Ahmadis have been killed after blasphemy allegations from 1990 to 2012.
Blasphemy for burial
Cases of Christian graveyard encroachment have also been reported in villages of Punjab. One of these villages is Torey Wala, where Shafique Masih faced a blasphemy allegation. In September, the bank worker was among 55 Christians booked under the blasphemy law after a local cleric alleged that the Christians had occupied a land formerly used as a graveyard.
“The old graves in the village’s only Christian graveyard have been flattened thrice,” Masih said. “A local politician permitted us to use an empty acre for burying our dead, and we had even erected mud walls around it,” he said.
“The walls were pulled down the same evening after Muslims objected at the land occupation, and Christians apologized. That night, the mosque loud speakers were used to announce that Isai (a common term for Christians) have occupied the old graves of Muslims. Eight Christians were sent to jail.”
The allegation was lifted after further investigations, but Masih’s life is not the same.
“We have been living here peacefully, but now people are talking about this issue. We cannot afford to buy a new cemetery. My name in the First Information Report has made me vulnerable. Any biased cleric or extremist group can easily find out about me,” he said.
Ahmadis are the second largest group to face religious discrimination — even after death. The Pakistan government declared them non-Muslims in 1974. In April 1984, Ordinance XX was enacted, which made it a crime, punishable by three years in prison, for Ahmadis to profess, practice or propagate their religion. Mainstream Muslims regard them as a heretical Islamic sect.
“The law transformed much of the daily life of the community into a criminal offense,” said Saleem-ud-din, the Ahmadi community spokesperson. “Separate Ahmadi graveyards and places of worship were erected after this law. Common graves of Ahmadi and Sunni Muslims can only be found in old cemeteries now.”
In its 2013 annual report, the Pakistani Ahmadi community states that 37 Ahmadi corpses have been exhumed and 61 denied burial in common cemeteries since 1984, while 233 of its members have been killed and 193 have been assaulted for their faith.
“In a single incident, 120 tombstones were desecrated in 2012 in the Ahmadiyya graveyard in Lahore,” said Saleem-ud-din. “Such examples are very agonizing for the families who see their dear ones suffering even after death.”
Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.