Sunday July 21, 2024

Zia and Pakistani Christians

By Zaigham Khan
January 30, 2017

You are totally mistaken if you think that Ziaul Haq – that great guardian of Muslim faith – has left a ‘glorious legacy’ for only Muslim women – a legacy that  the guardians of our souls are protecting with their lives.

As I write these lines, a battle of ideas is raging in the Christian community and the guardians of Christian souls are fighting tooth and nail to protect some gifts left behind by the iron man for the wellbeing of our Christian sisters and daughters. Alongside a congregation of holy men, we find on the watch tower, our Christian federal minister for human rights and many other Christian luminaries.

The opening salvo of the current battle was fired by a Christian man named Amin Masih who knocked on the doors of the Lahore High Court in 2015, asking for the right to divorce his wife without accusing her of adultery or converting out of Christianity – the only reasons for divorce allowed to Christian couples in Pakistan. This simple case of a simple man started a  civil war in the community that is causing many casualties, particularly among those who stand on Amin Masih’s side.

Let’s travel in time to begin our story at the beginning. The ‘Year of our Lord’ – 1981 – was an eventful time in the Islamic Republic under the pious rule of General Ziaul Haq aka Mard-e-Momin and Mard-e-Haq. He was sitting pretty on his throne after hanging Bhutto and ensuring he had American and Saudi support. Public flogging and hanging was in vogue and the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) that started in the second month of that year was nothing more than a pinprick.

Discarding the idea of Western democracy, the great general had resolved to turn Pakistan into a model Islamic state, a true laboratory for faith. A provisional constitution was enforced on March 23 to replace the constitution of 1973 that had already been suspended. Zia took the decisive step to turn Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state through the Zakat Ordinance, which essentially worked by stealing money from private bank accounts and distributing it to the heads of madressahs and other needy people.

How could Christians not be turned into true Ahl-e-Kitab (people of the book) in such a pious atmosphere and how could the Christian clergy not be included into the court of the pious ruler? Since 1869, a law by the name of the Christian Divorce Act has regulated the dissolution of Christian marriages. Section 7 of this law was found to be repugnant to the Holy Book that guides the lives of Christians and was expunged through a decree. (Some Christian clergymen swear that they were never consulted and the legal change was based on Zia’s own understanding of Christianity.)

Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act 1869 stated that the changes occurring from time to time to the Matrimonial Causes Act in England will be taken into consideration while the law is being updated. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 takes marriage out of the jurisdiction of the church and gives civil courts the authority to adjudicate on all disputes related to divorce. For more than a century, till Zia’s Christianisation, marriage was treated as a civil contract rather than a religious one.

In the absence of Section 7, it is only Section 10 that provides reasons for divorce amongst Christians. According to this section, a husband can file for divorce “on the ground that his wife has, since the solemnisation thereof, been guilty of adultery.” A wife, on the other hand, can file for divorce “on the ground that …her husband has exchanged his profession of Christianity for the profession of some other religion, and gone through a form of marriage with another woman; or has been guilty of incestuous adultery, or of bigamy with adultery, or of marriage with another woman with adultery, or of rape, sodomy or bestiality, or of adultery coupled with such cruelty as without adultery would have entitled her to a divorce men …or of adultery coupled with desertion, without reasonable excuse, for two years or upward”.

We have no idea how many women are locked in extremely abusive relationships as a result of this stroke of genius. Every now and then we get reports of extreme violence against, or murder of, Christian women and we also come to know that the victim had tried to get a divorce before the violent incident occurred. We know that thousands of Christian men and women have converted to other faiths only to part ways with each other. Once out of the flock, they have no way to re-join the community. We also know that accusations of adultery have become common among unhappy Christian couples.

Luckily, like Muslims in India, the leadership of Pakistani Christians is in the hands of religious leaders. In the court of law, Kamran Michael, the honourable Minister of Human Rights, stated that heavenly laws could not be altered. He also said that changing divine law in the name of fundamental rights would be a violation of religious principles. The minister claimed that he had developed his opinion after proper consultation with church leaders and scholars. Punjab Minister for Minority Affairs Tahir Khalil Sindhu (also a Christian) also supported the views presented by the federal minister.

Those who opposed these views in the court like PML-N MPA Mary Gill and Asif Aqeel, a writer and historian of the Christian community, are being hauled over the coals.

We can see that Pakistani Christians are the most pious Christians in all of Christendom and they understand the Bible better than any other Christian country just as Pakistani Muslims are the most pious Muslims of the whole Ummah. Somehow, piety of both communities is linked to Mard-e-Momin and has serious implications for the wellbeing and rights of women.

While hearing the case, the Lahore High Court, through a short order had restored Section 7 on May 23 2016, legally allowing Pakistani Christian couples to file for divorce while reserving the judgement. In September, the court started rehearing the case and reserved the judgement on January 21.

We do know how the court will resolve this troublesome case. Perhaps, Amin Masih can be asked to go ahead and accuse his wife of adultery or change his religion if he wants to part ways with his better half. Who am I, a sinner and coward, to question holy fathers whose lives – and bread and butter – is tied to the sacred text.


The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan