. Christians in Pakistan have been subject to secondary effects of U.S. foreign intervention.
Pakistani women pray for the victims of the twin suicide attacks at All Saints Church on September 23, 2013 in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Photo by Samir Raziq/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2018, four men waved down a rickshaw driver in a suburb of the Pakistani megalopolis of Karachi. They recognized the cabbie who was a Catholic, and were led by a Muslim cleric. He was dragged out of his rickshaw and beat almost to death. The men then set fire to the car, which was his only source for income.
I know that Christian, whose name is Michael D’Souza. He and his family fled to 2012, in search of asylum and refugee status. My wife and I became friends with him while we lived in Bangkok for three years. We paid the airfare for his family with the help of some friends and family. They decided to return to Pakistan after nearly a year in Bangkok’s notorious Immigration Detention Center.
Michael’s story is not atypical for Pakistani Christians, who comprise less than two percent of the country’s population. The most well-known case is the one of Asia Bibi, a poor Pakistani Christian who was convicted of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and sentenced to death via hanging. It all started over a cup water. Muslims in her village took offense at the fact that she was an unclean Christian and had drank from the same vessel as them. After her story was exposed and condemned by the international community, Bibi was allowed to flee to Canada.
Less well known is why Christians in Pakistan have become the objects of so much vitriol and violence, including a March 2016 suicide bombing at a crowded park in Lahore targeting Christians celebrating Easter Sunday, which killed 72 people. Conservative Christians in America often give the most common explanation for the rise in Islamic extremism. This includes the Wahhabi (reactionary Islam) strands from India and Saudi Arabia. This is a fact that there is a lot of truth to. Saudi Arabia funds many of the extremist madrassas in Pakistan. This is especially true in remote areas near Afghanistan.
But there is another, less discussed factor: the effect of U.S. foreign policy in the region. That story begins more than 40 years ago, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979. An Afghan anti-Soviet insurgency provoked a strong Russian response, which by 1982 had driven almost 3 million Afghans into Pakistan. From the relative safety of the western mountain valleys of Pakistan, the Afghan insurgency, or mujahideen, tormented the Soviets, aided by Riyadh and Washington with such weapons as U.S.-provided Stinger missiles, which ravaged Russian Mi-24D helicopter gunships.
In one respect, the triple alliance between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan was a resounding Cold War success. The Afghan war was a total embarrassment for the Soviet Union, which, after suffering more than 70,000 casualties and wasting billions of dollars, evacuated the country in 1989. Yet it also laid the groundwork for the very circumstances that would facilitate 9/11.
Even after the Russians departed, millions of Afghans, primarily Pashtuns, remained in Pakistan. These Pashtuns were often taught by clerics who were influenced by the Saudis’ anti-Western, reactionary brand of Islam. Indeed, a madrassa founded by Pakistani religious and political leader Sami ul-Haq had been a major training ground for the leadership of the Taliban, which catapulted to military success when they captured Kandahar in 1994. When they seized Kabul in 1996, they provided an ideal safe haven for Saudi extremist (and former mujahideen supporter) Osama bin Laden.
Following NATO retaliation for 9/11, resulting in the defeat of the Taliban, militant Afghan Pashtuns (and bin Laden) once more fled into Pakistan to begin yet another insurgency against a foreign aggressor, forming military shuras, or councils, in cities like Quetta and Peshawar. By the early 2000s, Pashtuns were a sizable minority not only in the fairly remote western provinces (known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA) but in major cities like Lahore and Karachi.
Although Pakistani Christians had often been harassed and targeted via the country’s heinous blasphemy law, which was increasingly enforced during the presidential administration of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent invasion of Iraq dramatically heightened anti-Christian sentiments. Patrick Sookhdeo, a scholar and convert Muslim to Christianity, observes that Christians in Pakistan were subject to retaliation by Muslims seeking revenge on the Americans.
These sentiments were especially visible among aggrieved Pashtun communities that had embraced the Taliban’s extremist ideology. By 2007, militant groups in NWFP and FATA, which had engaged in sporadic revolt against the Pakistani government, had coalesced into the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It was dominated by Pashtuns, and maintained the same strict form of Islamic belief.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, U.S.-led military efforts aimed at combating the Taliban’s alarmingly effective insurgency began focusing on the border areas of northwest Pakistan that harbored Taliban insurgents. This, in turn, led many Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to flee their mountain havens in favor of more populated parts of Pakistan, including Karachi, a city of almost 15 million people. Many thousands of refugees fleeing the same areas emigrated to Karachi as a result of Pakistani military operations against Taliban-aligned insurgencies.
News media in 2009 and 2010 began reporting speculations that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar had shifted his base from Quetta, near the Afghan border, to Karachi. In a period of just a few weeks in late 2009, Karachi police arrested more than 450 illegal foreign residents, mostly Afghan and Uzbek citizens suspected of having ties to militants. When the Washington Post in 2014 asked a senior Karachi police commander about the number of Taliban sympathizers living in the city, he bluntly estimated “a couple hundred thousand.” The same article cited Pakistani officials and analysts who estimated that the number of active militants who were members of either the Taliban or similar Muslim extremist groups was ten to fifteen thousand.
Thus Pakistan’s minority Christian populations faced a problem stemming from two overlapping developments: increased numbers of Taliban-sympathizing Pashtuns in their communities, and a large “Christian” Western military presence in neighboring Afghanistan that inflamed Pashtun anti-Western grievances. Militant Pashtuns saw Christians in Pakistan as a threat to the Islamic purity and a visible sign of the Western imperialism they detest.
Such anger was compounded by frequent news of U.S. military interventions elsewhere in Dar-al-Islam, or the