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Friday, May 17, 2024

Christian rights activists pin hopes on PPP after PTI disappoints

A prominent journalist and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community looks at how PTI has backed out of pursuing changes to the archaic Victorian Christian marriage and divorce laws. He argues that hopes of the Christian community in Pakistan now lie with the PPP in Sindh.

The issue of divorce overshadows Christian family laws and makes it challenging to overhaul these old Victorian laws. PTI has let down decent, hard-working Christians looking to make changes in their lives. Sindh Assembly’s only Christian member belonging to PPP is hopeful that his party would not only present a bill on Christian personal laws but get it approved as well.

Family laws are personal laws in Pakistan. They cannot be treated as civil law. Bishop of Multan Leo Prodigious Paul

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has probably dropped from its agenda: addressing human misery in the Christian personal laws. As a result, human rights advocates now look towards the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to reform these one-and-half-centuries old rotten laws in the Sindh province. Pakistani Christians, who account for about 3.3 percent of the total population, are mainly located in Punjab, but a large number of them also live in Sindh.

They are governed by family laws that were introduced by the British during their rule in the Indian subcontinent. Because they are contrary to the basic human rights framework, India has amended them, but in Pakistan, the right-wing approach in the country even dominates Christian personal laws. Right after coming to power, the PTI government raised high hopes of bringing substantial changes in the lives of religious minorities through legislative means.

Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari in September last year came up with a firm decision that new Christian personal laws would be introduced to protect the rights of Christian women after meeting members of the National Lobbying Delegation for Minority Rights. The ministry even included the drafting of Christian personal laws as a success item in its 100 Days of PTI.

General Zia-ul-Haq struck down Section 7 without consulting with Christian leaders in 1981. Since then, divorce has become almost impossible, and converting to Islam was seen as an easy escape from the tediously long legal procedure, but Ameen Masih was to challenge this

The current laws have different rules for husband and wife, which is in contradiction with Article 25 (equality of citizens) of the Constitution of Pakistan. The divorce law also requires to legally prove adultery in the court for divorce and further requires the husband to seek compensation from the “co-adulter” for having sexual relations with his wife if he is accusing her.

In August, the federal cabinet approved Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill 2019 “in principle”. The bill was based on two amendment drafts submitted by the Church Drafting Committee. However, the ministry decided, unlike in India, to draft a whole new bill, rather than amending the two current laws (Divorce Act 1869 & Christian Marriage Act 1872).

The newly drafted bill provided the means for registration of marriage with NADRA. It removed such obsolete clauses, like marriage should be taking place between morning and evening, and Christians living in Pakistan are “Native” or “European.” The Human Rights Ministry sent the bill to the Law Ministry only for vetting.

However, the latter, sent the bill back to the human rights ministry for further consultation because some hardliner church leaders wrote to the Law Minister Dr. Farogh Naseem that the potential legislation was interference in Christian beliefs. Since then, the PTI government has backed off from its decision and the bill placed on the backburner.

The Denominational Divide over Divorce

In Christianity, marriage is a sacred institution, which is why divorce is next to impossible, but the degree of sacredness attached varies from one denomination to the other. Pakistani Christians are governed by the Divorce Act 1869 and Christian Marriage Act 1872, which are primarily based on English ecclesiastical understanding.

The Church of England separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th century over the divorce of King Henry VIII. Unlike Protestants, Catholics believe there is no possibility of divorce. The Anglican Communion in Pakistan merged with the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council into the Church of Pakistan in 1972.

Today, Catholics are the largest denomination in Pakistan, while the largest church gatherings are brought together by charismatic and evangelical small churches, who are often not considered “mainstream” by long-established denominations like Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, so the British era laws have theologically become irrelevant. The most controversial is the Divorce Act in Christian family laws.

Though the western Christian denominational divides are blurry in Pakistan, it has become sharper in the country over this issue. Catholics believe marriage is a sacrament, and there cannot be a divorce in any case. For them, marriage can only be nullified ab initio if it was unlawful or within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity.

Protestants, however, have a softer view on divorce. All of them disapprove of divorce, but most of them do not believe it is a sacrament. The Divorce Act deals with divorce in two sections: Section 7 allowed invocation of secular Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, and Section 10, which was based on Anglican Church’s rigid approach, has adultery as the only ground for divorce; and accusation is not enough, it needs to be legally proven in court.

Read more: Pakistan Christian in last appeal on blasphemy death sentence

“A glimpse of biblical marriage can be defined as one man, one woman, perfectly suited to one another, joined in an intimate and exclusive, mutual and safe, life-long partnership,” said the Rev. Dr. Liaqat Qaiser who is principal of Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) Bible College, a Protestant and Pentecostal denomination.

“The current narrative (of Section 10) is based on the teaching of Jesus Christ, but it neglects what Paul has taught us. Paul says if an unbeliever spouse leaves, then the Christian believer ‘is not bound in such circumstances’. So, there is a need to see how we deal with significant challenges in family life like torture and permanent desertion.”

General Zia-ul-Haq struck down Section 7 without consulting with Christian leaders in 1981. Since then, divorce has become almost impossible, and converting to Islam was seen as an easy escape from the tediously long legal procedure, but Ameen Masih was to challenge this.

Ameen Masih’s Case and PML-N Government

During the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government (2013-2018), it was impossible to think of bringing any improvement in these laws because the PMLN had no agenda for minorities.

The two most powerful minority ministers – the Federal Human Rights Minister, Kamran Michael, and Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister, Khalil Tahir Sandhu, who been elected on reserved seats were Christian, and they needed the blessing of the religious leadership rather than the general masses; hence, no progress could be made to improve these laws.

The Punjab Assembly parliamentarian Mary Gill singlehandedly struggled against them despite being a member of the PML-N. In January 2015, one Christian man, Ameen Masih, approached a superior court in Lahore and requested that he wanted to divorce his wife because their marriage had been irretrievably broken down. But he submitted that he did not want to accuse his wife of adultery because she is a decent woman.

Christian activists hopes on PPP

The Lahore High Court (LHC) allowed the petition and then asked Christian leaders to submit their views. Punjab Assembly member Shunila Ruth, who belongs to PTI, and the outgoing Church of Pakistan Bishop, Alexander John Malik, stated in the court that General Ziaul-Haq had not consulted the clergy when he struck down Section 7 in 1981 and, thereby, infringed religious liberty of the community.

Based on this evidence, the court decided the case in May 2016 and restored Section 7, allowing invoking the British civil law on marriage and divorce issues. The LHC could not announce its verdict in writing because the Christian politicians and clergy approached the then Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and stated that they must be heard before the final decision is taken.

Read more: Pakistan’s Resilient Christians: Who they are, where they came from?

Chief Justice Shah reheard the case on January 20, 2017, which was attended by Christian politicians, religious leaders, legal fraternity and media. Kamran Michael, despite being the Human Rights Minister, stated in the court that the “divine laws could not be changed in the name of fundamental rights.”

Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Rt. Rev. Sebastian Shaw and Church of Pakistan Bishop Irfan Jamil jointly stated that “Being a divine law of the (sic) Christianity, no one can change any verse or orders of the Holy Bible”.

Khalil Tahir Sandhu, a staunch Catholic, submitted biblical verses stating that Section 7 could not be restored because it violated the biblical injunctions. The court, however, still restored Section 7, observing that General Haq had no right to interfere in the matters of the Christian community.

Church Drafting Committee and government

Senator Kamran Michael, however, had set up a group called the Church Drafting Committee, consisting of several church leaders from various denominations, to review the Christian laws in August 2016 after the LHC announced that Section 7 would be restored.

The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a rights organization working under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Pakistan, provided secretarial help to this committee in drafting amendments. In April 2018, the Church Drafting Committee submitted its two drafts to the federal Human Rights Ministry.

Christian activists hopes on PPP

But no development took place because of disagreement over the issue of divorce. In July last year, however, the new government of Tehreek-e-Insaaf took up the reins of the government with the agenda of providing social justice. Bishop of Multan Leo Rodrick Paul, who headed the committee, said that the current government bill was based on the amendment drafts proposed by the committee.

“We had suggested amendments while the government has combined them into one bill. This move has caused more fissure in the Christian community that was already fragmented on the issue of divorce,” Paul said. “The bill has many inconsistencies with the proposed amendments, and now we have mailed recommendations to the ministry. We hope the government will look into those recommendations.”

Gospel Baptist Church Bishop Abraham Daniel, who was part of the drafting committee from Sahiwal, said that the government must present only those amendments that we had proposed. “If it is necessary, then the church committee should be consulted before suggesting any changes. The committee has reviewed the draft and sent its recommendations on the new draft.”

Several denominations endorse the observations sent to the Human Rights Ministry by the Church Drafting Committee on the current government bill. The Catholic Church had provided support for the bill, but this is now divided and dwindling.

Looking towards PPP

Peter Jacob and Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash, who believe that Christian marriage and divorce should be treated exclusively in “the domain of civil law”. Jacob heads the non-government organization Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which in recent months, became active on Christian personal laws. He believes that “the final draft’s content should be left to legal and human rights experts.”

Similar to Jacob, Dr. Bangash, who has DPhil in history from the University of Oxford, says that trying to unite and getting a unanimous opinion from the clergy is “futile” and impossible. He believes that NGOs “are ill-equipped to aid the process” and unelected Christian parliamentarians lack understanding of “nuances” of these laws.

Read more: Pakistan’s resilient Christians: Kamran Michael

The Human Rights Ministry has adopted some of the amendments proposed by them. Bishop Leo, however, contrasts with the position taken by Jacob and Bangash. “According to the letter received from the Law and Justice Division, the ‘Ministry of Human Rights has sent us (the Law Ministry) the amended Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2019, after incorporating recommendations of Mr. Peter Jacob, Rt. Rev. Dr. John Alexander Malik and Mr. Yaqoob Bangash.

Please examine the draft amended bill and let us know.’” “The federal Human Rights Ministry in 2016 requested the churches to come up with amendments, not secularists. After the several church leaders from various denominations and parts of the country with two years of hard labor had come up with recommendations, the ministry has opted for secularist recommendations. Then why we were asked in the first place?”

But Sindh Assembly’s only Christian member Naveed Anthony, belonging to the PPP and who is also part of the National Lobbying Delegation for Minority Rights, is hopeful that his party would present a bill on Christian personal laws. “Human rights are our priority, and the party leadership has given a go. Unlike in Punjab, the Christian clergy is supportive in Sindh of improving these archaic laws, so we will soon be tabling a bill in this regard,” he assured.

Asif Aqeel is a prominent journalist, researcher and writer, and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community. His area of work is “Marginality & Exclusion”, with a focus on religious minorities. Apart from Christians, his research includes the “Brahmanic Caste System” and its challenges to Pakistan’s poor Hindu minorities. Asif holds degrees in MSc Sociology, and MPhil in Public Policy and Governance and his MPhil thesis was “Post-Partition Rural to Urban Mass Migration and Subsequent Illegal Settlements of Punjabi Christians and their Adoption of the Sweeping Occupation in Pakistan.” Asif has worked with the Daily Times and Express24/7 and several non-government organizations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.