Bangkok — Thailand’s capital of Bangkok is a large, bustling, chaotic metropolis. The friendly, informal nation of Thailand draws visitors from around the world. Filling some backstreet neighborhoods are impoverished Pakistani Christians, stranded in the Thai capital while hoping to gain religious asylum elsewhere. They survive with support from my friends at Christian Freedom International, which aids victims of religious persecution, and other humanitarian groups.
The problem reflects domestic failures in Pakistan, especially social and legal discrimination and persecution, often violent, against religious minorities. Islamabad is formally an American ally but in practice has constantly challenged U.S. interests. The domestic political system is unstable, corrupt, and dominated by the military. Religious minorities suffer: not just Christians, but Ahmadis, Hindus, and others as well.
Pervasive persecution has driven Pakistanis abroad in search of asylum. Noted the Global Minorities Alliance: “An increase of attacks against minorities in Pakistan . . . has led to Christians heavy-heartedly fleeing their country,” many to Thailand.
There’s not much the U.S. government can do to ease Christians’ plight in Pakistan, other than press Islamabad to protect the lives, dignity, and liberties of all their peoples. But Washington could accept the few thousand Pakistanis stuck in Bangkok, essentially people without a country, unable to go either forward or backward. Even the Trump administration should welcome religious minorities fleeing Islamist oppression.
Pakistan long has been inhospitable to anyone other than Sunni Muslims. General-turned-president Muhammad al-Zia-ul-Haq ruled from 1978 to 1988; he consolidated power by playing to radical Islamist sentiments, shifting the nation away from the original secular vision of founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The latter promised: “Minorities, to whoever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith, or belief will be secure.” Alas, that sentiment died years ago, and the furies Zia loosed now are ravaging the country.
Christian-persecution watchdog group Open Doors ranked Pakistan as the world’s number-five persecutor on its World Watch List. Islamabad lags behind only North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan.
The British All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief recently detailed the awful state of religious liberty in Pakistan. The MPs’ report noted: “Pakistan presents a particularly bleak environment for individuals wishing to manifest their right to freedom of religion or belief.” Important issues, the group pointed out, include lack of political representation, blasphemy laws, inadequate protection of religious minorities and their defenders, and brutal threats against women, adults, and children.
The problem is twofold: There is both state and private persecution. The APPG warned that the result is “a dangerous environment for any adherent of a religious belief not deemed ‘orthodox’ by those around them to practice their right to manifest their beliefs.” Of course, not everyone suffers equally. The report noted “the likelihood of persecution depends on factors such as their encounters with and actions amongst people of other/different faiths or beliefs,” as well as other issues. One action that makes anyone vulnerable is conversion: “If a Muslim makes a decision to become a Christian — becoming an apostate and, in turn, blaspheming against the Prophet — and their conversion becomes public knowledge, their life will be at risk.”
Last year the Global Minorities Alliance produced a report entitled “Are Christians in Pakistan Persecuted?” The answer was an obvious yes. Pakistan has the world’s second-largest Muslim population, trailing only Indonesia. More than 96 percent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim; just 1.5 percent are Christians, who nevertheless constitute the largest minority group. The GMA found that they, along with other religious minorities, “are routinely marginalized and are often condemned to a life of poverty, disadvantage and the fear of persecution.”
Jinnah’s inclusive vision “was never fulfilled,” concluded GMA. Even under Zia the situation deteriorated, after the introduction of blasphemy laws in the 1980s. The situation worsened again under President Pervez Musharraf, after he backed the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom rated Pakistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department put Pakistan on its “Special Watch List.” State’s annual religious-liberty report repeats the sad saga of pervasive discrimination, brutality, and persecution. False blasphemy charges often led to mob violence, the “basic rights” of Ahmadis were denied, and the “authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities.”
Such general descriptions do not give a true sense of the ubiquitous and oppressive nature of religious persecution in Pakistan. Umair Javed, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, writes that “violence against minority groups is deeply embedded within political and social processes in Pakistan.”
These reports identify several instances of attacks on Christians. Christian women are subjected to forced marriages and conversions. Asia Bibi, an illiterate field worker and mother of five, has been imprisoned since 2009 on charges widely believed to false, made by co-workers angry that she shared their cup when drinking water.
The British Pakistani Christian Association, chaired by William Chowdhry, follows the torrent of abuses against Christians evident in Pakistan. Among the titles of the organization’s many press releases issued over the years:
- “Police discrimination forces Pak-Christians to petition the government to worship in church.”
- “Girl thrown from window after rejection of Muslim trafficker’s marriage proposal.”
- “Christian hospital manager dies after motorcycle acid attack.”
- “Christian man shot by neighbor on his wedding anniversary was on his way to buy a Cake.”
- “Police charge Muslim murderer of Christian father who attempted to retrieve daughter from forced marriage!”
- “Still no convictions for any of the Muslims involved in burning alive of Christian couple in Pakistan two years ago.”
- “Christians brace for further marginalization with zero representation in the National Assembly as blasphemy law proponents seize power.”
Violence continues to this day. The group International Christian Concern documented 14 cases of persecution against Christians in August alone. “Pakistani Christians were killed, raped, and forced to convert,” ICC recounts. “Entire communities were attacked.”
Given the ugly reality facing so many religious minorities, it is small wonder that many of them seek sanctuary elsewhere. I’ve talked with refugees now living in Bangkok and heard tragic stories of threats, attacks, hostility, and violence. Many were physically assaulted. Most had good reasons to flee.
A few years ago Thailand became a hoped-for way station. A prime tourist destination, the land of smiles was one of the few nations that permitted Pakistanis to enter as tourists. Moreover, the United Nations was present, having long certified as refugees Burmese fleeing persecution and conflict nearby. So Pakistani Christians hoped they could gain resettlement in the West, and especially America.
Pakistan lost many of its brightest and best. Observed the Global Minorities Alliance, “The majority of these Pakistani urban refugees come from a middle class background. They were teachers, in health care, owned small businesses, worked with churches or were skilled workers in other areas.” Many families quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and flew to Bangkok.
At one point, there were an estimated 11,500 Pakistani Christians in Thailand, many, sadly, incarcerated. That number has fallen, as some have returned home — though that is not a realistic option for others, given the dangers that drove them abroad in the first place.
Alas, it soon became evident that Thailand was no sanctuary. Even my short visits over time, aided by CFI, highlighted the many challenges asylum seekers face. The U.N. took months, even years, to interview Pakistani refugees. Christian refugees complained that officials failed to take their claims seriously, more readily accepting petitions from Shiites and Ahmadis. Proving persecution is difficult, especially when the threat is episodic private violence rather than official persecution. There is no review process for denials of refugee status. Thailand, which never ratified the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, does not respect a U.N. designation as a refugee.
Pakistanis cannot legally work or purchase property in Thailand. Refugee children theoretically have a right to education, but language barriers, inadequate transportation, and fear of discovery create significant practical barriers. The Jubilee Campaign, which defends victims of religious persecution around the world, reported that the U.N. could take as much as three and half years to grant would-be refugees an interview. Those arrested are first “held in the Central Jail of Bangkok, where conditions are degrading and inhumane.” After a court hearing, refugees, including children, are transferred to immigration detention centers.
Detainees stuck in overcrowded, squalid IDCs suffer through difficult, often awful conditions. GMA complained that “Thailand treats people in their IDCs more as cattle than as human.” Worse, some detainees end up in prisons, confined alongside hardened criminals. Those confined have few options of release — a bail system was ended a couple years ago. Even those who remain free are in a sense imprisoned, since the Thai authorities stake out neighborhoods, businesses, schools, and apartments. Refugees typically share small apartments with other families and fear arrest whenever they leave, whether for work, school, medical care, or shopping. Many have recently dispersed in response to the recent Thai crackdown.
CFI aids Pakistani refugees in numerous ways, providing food and sundries to families, supporting a church focused on refugees’ needs, visiting and bringing food to detainees, finding employment opportunities for adults, counseling family members, and running a school for children. But the group can assist only a limited number of families. Needs dramatically outrun resources, despite CFI’s best efforts.
Even as the refugee flow ebbed after word returned to Pakistan, demand did not diminish. Pakistanis have no easy exit from Thailand. Those who arrived early are essentially trapped: They have sold their possessions and face only persecution and violence at home. Yet they see no path forward in Thailand, either.
Nevertheless, hope remains. CFI’s Wendy Wright relates stories of Pakistani refugees threatened at home who find spiritual growth and happiness among fellow believers. Some Pakistani expatriates gain fulfillment serving their even-more-desperate countrymen and women. These brave souls fled utter darkness at home and now reflect God’s light in another country.
The Trump administration has improved relations with the ruling junta in Bangkok and could encourage it to test alternatives to mass incarceration, such as bail backed by ankle bracelets and other forms of supervision. Thailand also should consider shoring up housing and work opportunities for migrants. Bangkok could distinguish between religious and economic refugees, especially those religious refugees who desire to be resettled overseas.
But most important, Washington could take in the several thousand Pakistanis stuck in Bangkok. That won’t be easy, given the president’s hostility toward mass immigration. But the number of these refugees is quite small. Having been persecuted, they are among the best candidates for U.S. citizenship, almost certain not to be terrorists and to appreciate their new home. Even the administration should appreciate making new citizens of minority Christians, especially those fleeing majority-Muslim countries, where hostility is especially fierce.
There also would be political advantages, both abroad and at home. Thailand would appreciate resolution of a persistent and embarrassing problem. Opening America’s door, even only a crack, would help ease criticism of the administration for its ungenerous approach to refugees. Such a proposal also might win bipartisan support: Both the GOP and Democratic Party have reasons to support the entry of oppressed Christian refugees.
It is easy for Americans to forget how blessed they are. Despite rising hostility to religious faith and liberty, the U.S. remains a sanctuary for believers from around the world. Americans of faith should support their brethren stranded in Bangkok with little hope for the future. And Washington should invite these same people to make America their home, to replace the one they gave up in their search of respect, safety, and liberty.