Attacking graveyards: Washington Post probes unusual form of oppression in Pakistan


This is how bad persecution gets in Pakistan: You can't escape it even if you're dead.

Denying a final resting place to a despised group is the topic of an enterprising newsfeature by the Washington Post. For Christians and other minorities there, enduring contempt even in death is a way of life.

"Bleak" seems hardly adequate to describe the picture painted by the article. Here's a painfully eloquent passage:

Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.
Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.

The WaPo story is a textbook example of reporting both in breadth and depth. It reports from three towns, from a remote hamlet to Lahore, the nation's second-largest city. It quotes 12 sources, Muslim as well as Christian. And it armors itself against a possible complaint of pro-Christian myopia:

Christians in Pakistan have been targets of what human rights activists call an unprecedented wave of violence against religious minorities, including Shiites, Ahmadis, Sikhs and Hindus. Thousands of members of religious minority groups have been killed over the past five years. But the Christians’ dwindling burial space is an example of a less dramatic but more persistent battle they say takes place behind the bloody headlines: a daily struggle for what might seem to be basic rights.

The article presents numbers, anecdotes and individual quotes. A Pakistani Christian laments a move by a Muslim developer to take cemetery land for a park and a Muslim graveyard. "It's like a pain in our heart," he says.

The Post adds that most Pakistani Christians are "poorly educated and are relegated to living in slums and working menial jobs," although it doesn't attribute the assertion. It adds that the Christians are "frequently attacked," and it adds several anecdotes -- drawn from reports by NBC News and the Post itself.

So naked is the hatred illustrated by the stories, it's hard to believe they all happened in the 21st century:

In 2009, two Christian villagers in Punjab were shot dead and five others burned alive after a mob accused a Christian of burning a Koran. Last year, 127 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a Christian Church in Peshawar. In September, a police officer shot and killed a Christian while the man was in jail on blasphemy charges.
The country’s blasphemy law forbids insults of any form — even by “innuendo” — against the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and makes the crime punishable by death, though there has yet to be a state-sponsored execution of a convicted blasphemer. On Thursday, a Pakistani court upheld a 2010 death sentence for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, whose case drew worldwide attention and condemnation from the Vatican.

Horrendous as they are, the anecdotes would have been amplified by total numbers; I'm sure that human rights groups must have compiled some. But you can judge a group not by its most extreme members, but by how everyone else reacts to them. And thus far, Pakistani society hasn't responded well. In fact, it “has been cultivated to develop indifference and animosity” toward Christians, says a rights advocate.

Why and when did the hostilities ramp up? This article doesn't answer what. It says that local shopkeepers in one town began encroaching on the Christian cemetery a decade ago. Was the action a byproduct of the United States' fight against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan? Is it a fruit of the many madrasas, or Muslim schools, across the nation? Perhaps a reaction to the Hindutva movement, which has led to persecution of Muslims and Christians in neighboring India?

And when did Christianity first come to the land? The Post says a Christian cemetery in Lahore may date to the 1800s. Perhaps the three writers didn't go into that because it would have added to the story length, already topping 1,300 words.  But a short paragraph on when and how Christians arrived would have added depth.

Those nitpicks aside, this article is a forceful account of a form of hatred so spiteful that it's hard to grasp. If this article had come out on, say, Fox News or Worldnet Daily, it might be easy to brush it off as conservative propaganda. But coming out in the Washington Post, the reporting shines even more brightly.

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