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22 October 2011

No Home for Persecuted Pakistani Christians in any state. By Nasir Saeed

nasir%20saeed.jpgThe suffering of Pakistan’s Christian minority is well documented, but what you may not be so aware of is the tragic way in which many of those who muster up the courage to seek refuge in the West are turned away at the door.

I say tragic because part of the reason why Christians in Pakistan are so badly persecuted is the widespread misconception that Christianity is a western religion. Many Muslims, not only extremists, believe that Christians are in collusion with the western powers and that to attack them is to attack the West.

With the hatred towards them so intense in their own country, it is natural that Pakistani Christians look to the West as a refuge from the threat of death that they face every day.

If any Westerner is any doubt as to the severity of the situation they need only consider the accusation of blasphemy leveled against an eighth grade pupil at a school near Abbottabad because she misspelled a word in a class test. The school’s decision to expel her only proves the extent to which the blasphemy laws are being misused.

Yet the British Government appears almost determined not to let any asylum seeker in, no matter how desperate or endangered their lives back home are. From the moment they submit their application for asylum, Pakistani Christians have a tough time convincing the Border Agency that returning to their homeland is life threatening. I have been contacted on several occasions by Pakistani Christian asylum seekers desperate for help with preparing their appeal. I have also been contacted by the chaplain at Yarls Wood detention center out concern over the lack of support they are receiving.

Twin sisters at Yarls Wood, who cannot be named, told me that one of them had been kidnapped after refusing to convert to Islam. In another case, one woman’s entire family in Pakistan is suffering because her nephew has refused to convert to Islam. Instead of her nephew, she has had to pay the price of his refusal, having been tortured and sexually assaulted by the Pakistani police during investigations. She is still wanted by the Pakistani police and it is not clear what the outcome of this situation will be.

The extent to which Pakistani Christians are being refused asylum and simply put onto the fast track procedure is a clear indication of how little Britain understands the level of persecution that Christians in Pakistan are experiencing. Random arrests, imprisonments, forced conversions, kidnappings, rape, murder and the perpetual, menacing threat of blasphemy charges that could result in execution form the backdrop to their daily life.

To even arrive on British soil is a massive effort for Christians in Pakistan, many of whom are can secure only the lowliest forms of employment, like street sweeping, and therefore live their whole lives in poverty.

When their applications for asylum in Britain are rejected and their cases simply put onto the fast track procedure, the sense of distress is all the more great for several reasons.

Being without legal aid, many of them cannot afford to seek the advice of a legal adviser who could help them make sense of the process and in any case the fast track gives them only a few days to prepare their appeal - a wholly inadequate amount of time to gather all the documents and other evidence necessary to prove persecution.

Very often, they are provided with Muslim interpreters, which makes it difficult for them to fully open up about what they have experienced – hardly surprising when the people threatening them in their homeland are Muslims.

At present there are only a handful of Pakistani Christian lawyers in Britain and in any case, the asylum seekers tend to be referred by the Border Agency to the same small group of legal practices.

For many Pakistani Christian asylum seekers, their poor English makes the prospect of receiving guidance from a British adviser a daunting one. Yet even if they are able to find a fellow Pakistani to assist them, they tend to be Muslims and so the problem of distrust arises again.

They are turning to my organization, CLAAS, for legal assistance but regrettably, we simply do not have the manpower or resources to expand the support we are providing for persecuted Christians beyond Pakistan’s borders.

So what hope is left for these desperate people? Several things need to happen. For one thing, the Pakistani Christian community in Britain must start showing their support by speaking up on their behalf to the British Government. The British Government must be made aware of the harsh reality facing Christians in Pakistan and at least give those seeking asylum a fighting chance to prove the legitimacy of their claims.

Secondly, the Pakistani Christian community needs to come together to finance and equip more in their midst to become dedicated case workers. Very often, when Pakistani Christians arrive in Britain and begin the application process, the place they turn instinctively to for help is the Pakistani church. Good intentions may offer some comfort, but what is really needed is case workers who not only understand the asylum process and what is needed to build a good case, but also who speak their language and share their faith.

Finally, the Pakistani church in Britain must work in tandem with the church in Pakistan to ensure that members of their flock know ahead of time what support is available for them from the church and where they can turn to upon arrival in a foreign and bewildering land.

Perhaps then we might see more Pakistani Christians receiving from Britain the shelter and refuge they sincerely need



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