Her weekdays begin by arriving into the office in business casual. She assists clients until lunch, enjoys her break at a local deli, then back to work till close. Afternoons are spent watching Netflix with her husband. Saturday, she favors shopping in Oklahoma City’s best malls. Sunday, of course, she will be found attending church. The life of a typical American woman. However, Chirya is not an American woman. Chirya is a Pakistani Christian, a permanent resident living in Oklahoma.
Pakistani. Christian. Two words that appear to be antonyms of each other. However, for a minority in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan these two words come together.
*Pakistan has a population of over 150-million.
*Islam is the state religion of Pakistan.
*Muslims comprise over 96 percent of the population.
*Christians amount to only 1.6 percent of the population.
(Source: Library of Congress)
Now living in the US for a little over two years, Chirya has spent most of her life living in both Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. She summarizes her time in the Middle East with one word, “fragile”. Chirya, a third generation Christian, lived in fear and suffered persecution by the Muslim majority and a society that devalued women.
Chirya was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. Compared to the freedoms she experiences in America, life for a girl in Pakistan is difficult. “It is a conservative culture, living in a Muslim country…There are somethings that Christians and Muslims both believe like there’s not a lot of freedom for girls…Some people just think that as soon as they turn 16 or 18 they should arrange their marriages.”
Despite being from a Christian household, Chirya still lived in a society where marriages are often arranged. Pakistan, like the rest of the Greater Middle East, is a honor and shame society. Girls are expected to submit themselves to their family’s decisions. Often, parents will arrange to marry their daughters young to preserve their honor. Rumors of their girls seeing boys or displaying independence will be seen as shameful. Among the most conservative beliefs, honor can only be restored by the execution of the daughter.
Fighting back tears, Chirya recounts how her own father attempted to arrange her marriage. “I was in grade 10 and he thought that it will be too disgraceful for him if I get to know a guy, if I have a boyfriend or fall in love. He was afraid of all these things because of how his reputation would be affected.”
Ultimately, Chirya was given the choice to marry freely but she still suffered from gender inequality. “Growing up in that conservative culture, you always feel like you are not treated equal to men. Men have all kinds of freedom and girls are always restricted…There is always a kind of line you cannot cross.”
Chirya grew up dominated by a male-centered culture. However, nothing caused more fear than living under persecution from the Muslim majority. Her home country of Pakistan is ranked 8th for persecution against Christians (Source: Open Doors). Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but many Pakistani Christians feel this is an empty promise (Source: Library of Congress). “Its true that the Pakistani government gives freedom to Christians to build churches and practice their religion but there has always been some kind of clash and persecution.”
The persecution of Christians in Pakistan and throughout the Middle East takes many forms. To Chirya, all Muslim countries are the same. Personal and professional discrimination of Christians is commonplace. Chirya cites examples of Muslims excluding her from their social circles during her college years in Pakistan. After college, she moved to the United Arab Emirates, working as an English instructor. One of the few Christian employees, she found herself passed up for promotion by her juniors, despite her status as senior faculty. “Why was I not considered? ‘Because I’m Christian?’ That’s the first question that comes in your mind. I felt hurt. I felt I was not recognized, my abilities and my talent.”
There is more to fear than discrimination. On average, 180 Christians worldwide are killed every month for their beliefs (Source: Open Doors). This number continues to grow as turmoil in the Middle East leads to violence against minority groups. Islamists have taken advantage of the Arab Spring, Syrian civil war and conquest of ISIS. Muslim extremists are slaughtering Christians with little opposition as ISIS’s forces and ideology spread across the Middle East. However, some killings are government sanctioned. Pakistan, among several Muslim nations, have harsh blasphemy laws. An accusation of blasphemy against Islamic beliefs can lead to the death penalty, regardless of lack of evidence.
Chirya and her family have suffered loss from Muslim extremists. “My Uncle’s place, where he lived, they burnt the whole community…Our relatives in Peshawar were going to church and just a bomb explosion happened. We lost four of them.”
Chirya may live in America but feels no peace. While she is safer, her family continues to live in nations where persecution of Christians is rampant. Her voice is one of a countless multitude who must endure religious persecution and gender inequality. All she asks of her fellow Pakistanis is to, “Live and let others live.”
Federal Research Division (2005). Library of Congress Country Profile of Pakistan. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Pakistan.pdf
Open Doors USA (2014). World Watch List. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from http://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/
Open Doors USA (2013). 2014 Quick Facts. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from https://www.opendoorsusa.org/about-us/quick-faqs