LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) – For the first time in nine years, Asia Bibi will be with her husband on Christmas.
But many of her fellow Christians in Pakistan are afraid of a backlash this holiday season in the wake of Bibi’s October exoneration by the nation’s Supreme Court on blasphemy charges.
Recent cases of abductions, allegations of blasphemy and hate crimes against Christians, who make up 2 percent of the South Asian country’s population, have led churches to beef up security as parishioners sing carols around bonfires and watch Nativity dramas.
“This is the best time for us. We plan the Christmas play throughout the year and arrange several programs in the festive season,” said a 17-year-old college student in Lahore. “But it is a tense situation in the country. We hope that the government will facilitate us in marking our religious season.”
A mother of five, including three stepchildren, Bibi was arrested on blasphemy charges in 2010 after she allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammed during an argument over whether she should have drunk from the same water bucket used by her Muslim co-workers on a farm.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her of the charges. That sparked unrest in Pakistan as Islamic hard-liners called for her death. She and her husband are now in hiding in a government safe house.
The backlash has led many Christians to tone down their celebrations this year.
“We used to conduct carol singing in our neighborhood every Christmas,” said Natasha Joseph, a 31-year-old housewife in Karachi. “This year we are scared to use loudspeakers as some Muslims might complain.”
Some Christians will stay inside this Christmas.
Ishtiaq Masih, a 47-year-old security guard in Lahore, usually takes his family to the zoo and then joins other relatives for a picnic in the city’s botanical garden after their Christmas festivities. Not this year.
“This has been our ritual for years,” he said. “There is a threat of attack in public spaces for my family.”
Last year, Islamic State suicide bombers stormed Sunday services at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing nine people and injuring several others.
Christian survivors of that and other attacks feel unsafe participating in festivities.
“I have asked my family to just pray at home,” said Haroon Gill, 50, a schoolteacher in Quetta who was in the church. “There is no need to risk their lives. The children are upset. They won’t participate in the Christmas programs. I don’t have much of a choice knowing how our church was attacked last year and I was injured.”
It’s not the first time Christians have felt targeted for openly expressing their faith.
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Source: Religion News Service