ASIA/PAKISTAN - Historic court decision against discrimination: Christians should in future be referred to as "Masihi", the people of the Messiah

Monday, 6 November 2023 christianity   religious minorities   human rights   work   discrimination   education  

by Paolo Affatato

Lahore (Agenzia Fides) - Words have weight. Words are sometimes like bullets that kill. On the other hand, words can also give life, hope and comfort. Words have power, and in a community or a nation they have the power to create a mentality, to profoundly influence culture. For this reason, in Pakistan, the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which issued a wide-ranging order for the Christian community in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, appears historic, even "epoch-making" to some. The decision obliges the government and all public institutions to replace the term "Esai" (or "Isai") with "Masihi" when referring to the Christian community or citizens of the Christian faith. The measure is intended to mark a significant change in the approach to recognizing and respecting the cultural and religious identity of Christian communities. This is a long overdue change: for many years, Pakistan's Christian community has actively advocated for the use of "Masihi" as a designation in official government documents and communications. The term "Esai", which has always been used to describe Christians, has a derogatory connotation that goes back to ancient caste discrimination. The linguistic change therefore shows the will to promote religious tolerance, integration and the protection of the rights of minority communities and to overcome a logic of contempt. It testifies to the institutions' commitment to uphold and implement the principles of equality enshrined in the country's constitution. The Supreme Court's decision was made by a two-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and Justice Ejazul Ahsan, following a petition filed by Samuel Payara, chairman of the Implementation of Minorities Rights Forum. In Pakistan, Christians are often referred to by the Urdu word "Esai," derived from "Isa," the Arabic word used for Jesus in the Quran. The term "Masihi", on the other hand, meaning "people of the Messiah", is also accepted by Pakistani Christians and does not contain any negative judgment or imply any humiliation of the people to whom it refers. The term "Esai" was first used during the colonial period and mainly refers to people working in street cleaning and other lower caste occupations. Also an expression of hostility and disgust is the term “churha,” officially translated as “street sweeper,” a word that referred to a caste of Dalits, the “untouchables.” The term has retained a strong pejorative meaning over the years and is used as an insult to Christians, regardless of their profession: such insults with emotional and psychological impact often begin in Pakistani classrooms and have serious consequences for well-being, confidence and the self-esteem of children of Christian faith. The term refers to a social practice: In Pakistan, an estimated 80 percent of street and sewage garbage workers are uneducated people, at the bottom of the social ladder, Christians, who are still treated as outcasts or "untouchables": people generally avoid shaking hands, making friends, and even eating or drinking with them. The Supreme Court ruling, supported by the Council of Islamic Ideology, opens up the possibility of overturning this discriminatory mentality: the Election Commission of Pakistan, meanwhile, has already responded to the directive by removing the word "Esai" from voter registration forms and replaced by "Masihi", setting a precedent for other government departments. Leaders and supporters of the Christian community welcomed this development and see it as an important step towards recognition and respect for cultural and religious identity. The decision to replace "Esai" with "Masihi" is seen as a concrete attempt to banish feelings of contempt and discriminatory ideas from society and to promote harmonious coexistence. For the "National Commission for Human Rights" this is "an important victory to put an end to religious discrimination." According to the NGO "The Edge Foundation", this is an important step that will gradually be extended to all public, national and regional institutions. “It is a step towards unity,” said the NGO, “because it is not just a change in terminology, but also also a commitment to change mentalities, respecting the different identities that make up Pakistan's rich mosaic of cultures and beliefs. "It is a measure that promotes religious understanding and unity among the people of Pakistan." To overcome stereotypes that breed hostility, Bargad, Pakistan's largest Muslim youth non-governmental organization, has launched a program to teach the alternative term, encouraging its members to call Christians "Masihi." In Pakistan, where more than 90 percent of people identify as practicing Muslims, there are around 2.6 million Christians (1.27 percent of the total population), according to the 2017 census. Although Pakistan was founded in 1947 with the intention of creating a tolerant and egalitarian country, Pakistani Christians have suffered from substandard living conditions and creeping religious discrimination in society since its inception. According to the Lahore-based NGO Center for Social Justice (CSJ), even government departments issue tenders that confirm deep-rooted discriminatory practices, such as: reserving the lowest jobs in the sanitation sector, such as cleaning sewage treatment plants, for citizens of the Christian faith (a prerequisite). In 2022, the Center released an archive of nearly 300 discriminatory job advertisements published in Pakistani newspapers between 2010 and 2021. The job advertisements expressly invited only “non-Muslims” to apply for jobs as cleaners in public institutions. Mary James Gill, executive director of the NGO Center for Law and Justice (CLJ) and former member of the Punjab Provincial Parliament, wants to address inhumane working conditions and negative attitudes towards garbage collectors through an awareness campaign called "Sweepers Are Superheroes" launched in 2019. The campaign aims to improve the dignity of these workers by stimulating a political debate on the need for their social and legal protection. Back in December 2021, the Punjab government banned the use of the term “churha” for cleaners and imposed penalties for violating this ban. And in January 2022, the Islamabad High Court ordered various ministries and government departments to stop publishing job advertisements for cleaners reserved for "non-Muslims." According to the two non-governmental organizations CSJ and CLJ, these abuses have their roots in the caste system of the Indian subcontinent. When Christian missionaries came to India in the second half of the 19th century - long before the partition of 1947, when the British Empire divided India and Pakistan, creating two separate nations - many of the lower castes or outcasts, the "untouchables", became attracted by the message of dignity, justice, redemption and reparation that Christianity brought and converted to Christianity. As early as 1870, a conversion movement to Christianity had become widespread among the Chuhra Dalits in the province of Punjab. The Chuhras were the largest lower caste in Punjab and mostly practiced menial jobs such as street and canal cleaning. Even after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Chuhras of Punjab, almost all of whom were Christians, were uneducated and continued to be confined to menial jobs in sanitation. This social stigma has persisted through the decades, even after the emergence of the modern nations of India and Pakistan. And it is a vicious circle that is passed on from one generation to the next and is difficult to break out of. One of the means to break this cycle is education. The literacy rate of Christians in Pakistan reflects the impact of this structural discrimination. According to a 2001 report by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops of Pakistan (NCJP) - the last comprehensive analysis - the average literacy rate among Christians was 34% twenty years ago, compared to the then national average of 47%. Recent data released by the non-governmental organization Minority Voices shows that in Lahore, a city in the Punjab province where about 700,000 Christians live, the literacy rate among Christians is 69.80% when counting primary schools, but drops to 28.7% when looking at the subsequent school cycle, while the percentage of Christians with a university degree (9%), a master's degree (3%) or a doctorate (0.38%) shows the profound gap that exists in the field of education among young Christians. The work carried out by Christian churches of all denominations in the field of educational work and in promoting the general level of education remains crucial for the social and civil status of Christian believers in Pakistan and for overcoming the old discriminatory mentality. (Agenzia Fides, 6/11/2023)