Christmas is by far the most internationally recognised religious holiday in the world. Countries across the globe celebrate with universally known Christmas songs, brightly lit trees and green and red embellished outfits. In Pakistan, however, it’s tough to think about the tradition of Christmas without remembering the atrocities that Christians in our nation have had to face.

In countries where this is one dominant religion and culture, it is important to encourage tolerance. However, Pakistan is not partiularly well known for its tolerance among religious minorities. For this reason, it is interesting to reflect upon whether we can truly wholeheartedly celebrate Christmas in a country like Pakistan given the context of the abuse Christian minorities have faced.

Media outlets are quick to post about the various celebrations taking place across Pakistan; the unveiling of Christmas trees in different cities and the exchange of presents among the Christian community. In addition to this, I believe it is also important to acknowledge the muddied past Pakistan has with it’s Christian minorities.

About two per cent of Pakistan’s population, almost 5 million people are Christians. This sizeable minority has long suffered political, economic, social and legal discrimination. In recent years, the Christian community has been the target of many attacks, particularly around the holidays. In December 2017, an attack on a Church in Quetta killed 9 people. In March 2016, an attack on Christians celebrating Easter at a Lahore playground left 70 people dead. By far the most horrific attack, however, is the twin suicide attack on a Church in Peshawar in September 2013 killing 127 people.

Furthermore, Christian communities continue to remain among the poorest sections of society and often still do menial jobs. Laws still exist delegating sanitation jobs to Christian minorities and job postings for menial jobs – street sweepers, garbage collectors, sewer cleaners – oftentimes come with a clause that only non-Muslims will be considered. Entire villages in parts of Punjab are Christian with their inhabitants working as labourers and farmhands.

According to the UK-based organisation Minority Rights Watch, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities. Discrimination is entrenched in the very foundation of our country; from the blasphemy law that is used to persecute minorities to the legal clause that requires Pakistani citizens to agree that Ahmedi’s are non-Muslims. In effect, this provides a legal mandate for bigotry.

Religious customs in Pakistan have long remained a place of insecurity while simultaneously threatening the lives of those celebrating them. When thinking about Christmas in Pakistan, it is hard not to remember the horrific case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who got into an altercation with Muslim women only for them to use the blasphemy law against her. When the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, publicly expressed that the blasphemy law was abused in this instance, he was assassinated by his Islamist bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. It is further uncomfortable to recall the intense backlash Asia Bibi faced during her trial, and the mass protests that erupted following Qadri’s execution.

As a result, Christians have been forced to remain in the peripheral of Pakistani society and Christmas in Pakistan is often a lower-class affair. The lives of these religious minorties contrast greatly with the lives of those for whom they sweep and clean. They are either completely invisible or highly visible, but for all the wrong reasons. Most locals would not even know the location of Christian enclaves in major metropolitan cities.

Pakistan has a long way to go before we can properly integrate religious minorities into the upper echelons of society. I hope to see the day we can celebrate Christmas in Pakistan, as well as festivals of other religions, with a feeling of mutual understanding and tolerance. Without this, there is no chance for us to move forward as a society.