LAHORE: On September 3, Reverend Maurice Shehbaz, wrote his latest letter addressed to the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of Pakistan entitled, ‘Christian Prisoners and Pastors/Teachers of Prisoners are Facing Persecution in Prisons, Punjab’.
The letter was also sent to federal ministers of interior and human rights along with the Punjab Chief Minister, Chief Secretary and Home Secretary. Rev Shehbaz is yet to receive a reply.
The letter is the latest in a list of pleas sent out by Rev Shehbaz and his Gujranwala-based Prisons Mission Society, underlining that Christian prisoners have been deprived of religious education in Punjab prisons over the past five years.
The Prisons Mission Society, formed in August 2002, collaborates with around 250 churches nationwide to help inmates in the fields of education, health and other social sectors. Since 2015, a large part of their work has been dedicated to fighting for the religious freedom of the prisoners belonging to the religious minorities.
“The IG Prisons has completely banned religious teachings in the prisons since 2015, using security as an excuse. Pastors and reverends aren’t being allowed to go inside prisons. We [the Prisons Mission Society] have been barred as well. They are denying the basic human rights to the religious minorities,” says Rev Maurice Shehbaz.
Rev Shehbaz maintains that the persecution of the Christians in prisons isn’t limited to prevention of religious education.
“Prisoners are forced to give ‘fateek’ (bribe) to the jail staff, and Christian prisoners – even those who are under trial and haven’t been convicted yet – are forced to do sweeping work. We need to be given permission to access the jails and the Christian prisoners so that we can safeguard them, assist them and help them become useful citizens,” he adds.
Contrary to the security reason given as the justification behind priests not being allowed to preach, Islamic teachings continue unabated in Punjab prisons.
There are Christian inmates in 41 prisons of Punjab, with the vast majority concentrated in 12 jails. The two largest prisons of Punjab’s capital Lahore, Kot Lakhpat Central Jail and District Jail, have on average 10,000 prisoners. Of these, around 500 are Christians.
When contacted, a Lahore-based police officer confirmed that there are clear instructions not to allow members of the clergy from any religion inside the prison, as per the orders of Inspector General of Prisons Punjab Shahid Saleem Baig.
“Since the APS Peshawar attack [on Dec 16, 2014] there has been a strict ban on religious preachers inside the prisons. The ban was designed for the Islamic clerics because many of them were involved in passing on messages from the outside to terror convicts or giving inflammatory Friday sermons which created security problems in the prison,” the police officer said.
“This policy wasn’t designed against the Christian clergy at all, but the IGP says that if we allow priests inside the prison and not the Islamic clerics, they would be outraged,” the officer added.
Despite the rationale provided by the Punjab Police, Islamic education continues unabated inside the prisons. Those giving Quranic teachings in prison are government employees and jail staff, who are on the Punjab government’s payroll. As a result, non-governmental organisations have taken it upon themselves to find a solution for the Christian prisoners’ religious education.
“I’ve spoken to the IG prisons and he says that granting permission to Christian clergy for religious education isn’t possible right now, but the permission will be given when there is improvement in the security situation,” says Safdar Chaudhry, the Chairman of Rah-e-Nijat Ministry.
Chaudhry says he is familiar with the petition filed by Rev Shahbaz Maurice, but maintains that the reverend needs to take others on board.
“Shahbaz Maurice didn’t contact the concerned people to take them on board. He did everything on his own. Organisations working on prisons should unite and then form the strategy. Because even if the permission given, who will pay pastors? We at Rah-e-Nijat are working on getting the funding for the education of Christian prisoners in Punjab,” he adds.
Sources within Punjab Police confirm that despite the official ban, a few trusted organisations are given access during festivals and for provision of basic necessities to the prisoners.
Peaceful Pakistan organisation’s Marian Sharaf Joseph, who is involved in church services, confirms that the Christian clergy visits the prisoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Easter.
“All Catholic parishes, from the archbishop to the lowest level, visit the prisoners on Saturdays and Sundays around Christmas. Sisters also go on special occasions and once a month to provide food supplies,” she says.
Even so, while the clergymen manage to occasionally visit the prisons, the lack of formal facilities are preventing the Christian inmates from accessing religious education.
“The lack of a uniform syllabus for prisons has been a problem as well. But Ejaz Alam Augustine [the Minister of Human Rights & Minorities Affairs and Interfaith Harmony in Punjab] did a session on Minority Day and said that the syllabus has been finalised and will soon be approved,” says Marian Sharaf Joseph.
KK Shahid is a Lahore-based reporter and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-Asia network of grassroots reporters