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Row over PTI rally venue stirs Church politics

Community largely stays away from national matters of importance due to multiple reasons, including fear of retaliation from ruling elite, poverty and other deprivations

The extreme political polarisation of Pakistani society has also dragged the Christian community into political matters.

The row over alleged use of church land for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) rally in Sialkot on Saturday had not only divided the Christians, it also forced them to hold rallies in favour of their pro- and anti-use claims in different parts of the country.

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TV channels ran the statements of community leaders and social media witnessed throughout the day the messages from the supporters of the PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Both the parties tried to bring more and more Christians into debate, asserting they stood at the right side of the divide.

On the other hand, the home to Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Sialkot, also came to the limelight again on a sectarian issue, after Sri Lankan citizen’s lynching over alleged blasphemy a few months ago.

Where many Christians pleaded not to bring religion into politics, others used Saturday’s issue to gain significance at the national level.

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It has been seen in the past that the community largely stayed away from national politics due to multiple reasons, including fear of retaliation from the ruling elite, poverty and other deprivations.

Though the PTI changed the venue hours before the event over local Christians’ protest, which provided the administration a cause to ransack the preparations at the last moments, many alleged the PML-N used the religion card to get support of the millions of Christians across the country. The PTI claimed Christians were standing with Imran Khan – the party chairman and former prime minister who has been holding rallies in different cities demanding elections after his ouster from power as a result of a no-confidence motion in April.

The Sialkot DPO was quoted by TVs as saying that the members of the local Christian community were opposed to the gathering on the land – CTI Ground – they insisted belonged to the church. The police had also arrested (later released) many of the PTI leaders including Usman Dar, the former adviser to former prime minister Imran Khan, who was a bitter rival of Khawaja Asif and lost election against him in 2018 with a small margin.

“I will be going to Sialkot, let there be no doubt. What Imported [government] did in Sialkot against our [leadership and] workers is outrageous, but not unexpected. This bunch of criminals out on bail & their convict mafia boss in London have always used fascist tactics against opponents when in power,” PTI’s Chairman Imran Khan tweeted on Saturday.

PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz Sharif highlighted the issue by making a series of tweets and retweets throughout the day. She also appreciated the “interaction of Sialkot DPO with the PTI members in which the former said the land belonged to a minority and it could not be allowed to be used for a rally without Christians’ permission.”

“It is prime responsibility of the government to protect the rights of the minorities. Christians have been protesting for days that they won’t allow rally at Church land. Holding rally is your right but hurting religious sentiments is not your right and neither it will be allowed,” tweeted Maryam.

Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz also took notice of the matter and refused to give permission.

Shunila Ruth, a PTI leader of Christian community, said the PML-N intentionally politicised the issue and tried to play a religious card. The ground had also been used for political rallies of Khawaja Asif in the past, she said.

Social media and local media saw a debate throughout the day, when both parties dragged their supporters from the community to express themselves over the matter. One user, Christopher, tweeted they (Christians) would now allow the PML-N to use their shoulder to shoot the gun and to gain political advantage. PTI leader Hammad Raza retweeted Christopher’s tweet and also held a press conference to condemn the PML-N.
“It is somehow a blessing that Christians make their voice heard and record their protest no matter in favour or against the use of church land for political matter,” said a leader of a Lahore-based church who did not want to be quoted.

The third largest religion in Pakistan after Islam and Hinduism, the proportion of Christians in the country was estimated at about 1.27 per cent of the population, according to the 2017 census. Of these, approximately half are Catholic and half Protestant. A small number of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Oriental Orthodox Christians also live in Pakistan. Some reports say their population ranged between two and three million and could make a great impact on victory or defeat of a national and provincial assembly candidate in some constituencies of Punjab, the province home to majority of the Christians. Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies also have reserve seats for minorities which are alloted to political parties on the basis of their number of seats in the houses.

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