Source UCA News
HONG KONG, SAR: The unprecedented hobnobbing of some top Christian leaders with major political parties ahead of the Feb. 8 general election triggered more scorn from the minority community than praise.
Social media sites are full of negative criticism of these leaders who made headlines in recent weeks by publicly supporting political parties. This included allowing them the use the pulpit in election campaigns to woo Christian voters and holding press conferences from churches.
In the latest case, a group of Protestant leaders visited the central office of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Lahore on Jan. 31.
The Christian leaders -- three bishops of the Church of Pakistan, the Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army, the executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and several pastors -- attended a press conference in the party office.
They also posed for photos with former prime minister and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif, to express their open support for the party.
During the conference, they also put forth several decades-old demands including legislation against the misuse of blasphemy laws, forced conversions of underage minority girls as well as the creation of opportunities for the social uplift of religious minorities.
"Christian leaders are out to serve their self-interests even though major parties have done nothing significant to empower the tiny minority"
Meanwhile, pastors from other churches have been openly supporting the rival Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Pakistan’s leading televangelist Pastor Anwar Fazal not only allowed PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to visit the Eternal Life Church in Lahore but also to hold a press conference and speak to Christians after Sunday prayers from the pulpit on Jan. 6.
Critics have slammed such actions saying it shows how Christian leaders are out to serve their self-interests even though major parties have done nothing significant to empower the tiny minority community over the decades.
Why are these leaders out openly jumping on the political bandwagon and why are political parties, who failed minorities for decades, still able to cozy up with Christian leaders for political gain?
This requires looking at the 15 general elections the Muslim-majority nation has had since the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.
Until 2002, the electoral system required Muslims and religious minorities to register and vote separately.
Under the current system, religious minorities can vote along with Muslims to directly elect members of the national assembly and four provincial legislatures. In addition, religious minorities -- mostly Hindus and Christians -- have 10 seats reserved in the national parliament and 23 seats reserved in provincial assemblies.
However, the minorities have no say in electing members to the reserve seats. The minority lawmakers are picked from lists given to the Election Commission by major parties based on the proportion of seats they won in the general election. A party must win at least 5 percent of the total 336 seats to qualify for allocation of reserved seats.
"Minority candidates are not required to have all the attributes Muslim candidates must have"
On the surface, the current system appears to promote inclusivity and diversity within the political sphere, acknowledging the religious mosaic of the population and fostering a more harmonious coexistence.
However, the devil is in the details. This proportional representation system has so far failed because primarily political parties prepare the list of their minority representatives without any consultation with Christians and Hindus.
Political parties lack seriousness in selecting truly qualified candidates by analyzing their popularity, social standing, financial integrity, and criminal records. Past experiences show the surveys and interviews that political parties conduct to select minority representatives are inadequate and ineffective.
Political parties carefully chose their most winnable candidates based on popularity and social acceptance but no such evaluation is done in selecting minority candidates, said Sunil Gulzar, vice-president of the Minority Wing of PML-N in Punjab province.
“Affiliation with the party supersedes" their work for the community, their acceptance, or their background, he said.
In effect, the representational system has failed to represent the interests of diverse religious minorities and protect their democratic rights.
Besides, the system has more faults.
"No Christian has ever won a seat outright in a general election since Pakistan was formed in 1947"
The system allows two or more parties to select minority lawmakers from the same constituency. In 2015, four Christians were selected for the Punjab local government election from the same national assembly constituency, Lahore-III.
For example, the 10 seats reserved in the national parliament are for all religious minorities. It does not say how much should go to each of the minorities.
“A big fault in this system of nominations is that not every religious minority community needs to get space in every house. In fact, it depends on the will of six to seven party leaders and their advisers,” says Azam Mairaj, a Christian scholar and writer based in Karachi.
“All senators, members of the national assembly or provincial assembly can be nominated from a single religious minority if they want. Some communities are awarded more based on special abilities like donating to party funds while others face prejudice despite being in large numbers,” he said.
In 2018, six Hindus and four Christians were chosen as national assembly members on reserved seats for minorities. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged victorious with 149 seats, nominated five minority lawmakers, three of them Hindus. Parsi, Sikh, Bahai and other minorities were completely ignored.
That same year, Hindu leader Mahesh Kumar Malani of the PPP became the first non-Muslim to win a general seat in the national assembly from Tharparkar in Sinh province, the only Hindu-majority district in Pakistan.
No Christian has ever won a seat outright in a general election since Pakistan was formed in 1947. This is largely because national political parties have fielded very few Christian candidates, possibly because of their slim chances of winning a seat.
In the election on Feb 8, the PPP is fielding just three Hindus and two Christians.
The bishops who met former PM Sharif on Jan. 31, appealed to his party to pay attention to the political empowerment of Christians in Punjab province where the majority of the country’s Christians live.
Christian activists have come up with various formulas to ensure proper political representation of minorities.
"National elections have so far proved a futile exercise to fill a leadership vacuum in minority groups"
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Shinakht (Movement for Identity) has been pushing for a direct vote in electing representatives to the reserved seats. Rwadari Tehreek (Movement for Tolerance) recommends the declaration of separate constituencies or divisions for direct elections of minority parliamentarians.
Others suggest holding intra-party elections to choose the best candidates instead of picking “puppets” whose only qualification is party loyalty.
The current system is nothing less than “selectocracy” that is undemocratic and fails to deliver to minorities.
National elections have so far proved a futile exercise to fill a leadership vacuum in minority groups like Christians.
This leadership crisis and lack of proper empowerment are among the main factors behind the glaring political, social, and economic backwardness of Christians in Pakistan.
Without reforms, the current electoral system won’t ensure empowerment and the development of minority communities in Pakistan.
It is time for Christian leaders to call for changes in the system rather than seeking to be friends with politicians.
This will depend on whether they prioritize serving the interests of their poor and marginalized flocks over their self-centrism and self-service.