Life in the shadows
Radical Islam has forced thousands of Pakistani Christians to flee to Thailand, a place of hidden refuge but also one of little hope or opportunity
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BANGKOK—Peter (using his full name would place his family in jeopardy) was the only Christian to own a barbershop in Sargodha, Pakistan. His shop streamed with customers all day long, mainly rich and powerful Muslim lawyers, colonels, and officials. He worked hard from dawn to nightfall, often skipping church and even Christmas and Easter in order to support his aging parents, ailing wife, and newborn son.
One morning an imam visited his shop for the first time. Halfway through his beard trim, both heard the call to prayer. The imam told Peter to hurry so they could attend prayers together. When Peter explained he was a Christian, the imam grew enraged and grabbed him by the collar: “How dare you touch my beard when you’re a Christian! You’ve caused me to sin! You should have displayed a sign that you’re a Christian!”
As the man spewed insults, Peter pleaded for mercy. Even his Muslim neighbor ran in to intercede, but the imam insisted Peter convert to Islam. Peter’s refusal further enraged the religious leader. “You stay here, I’ll be back for you,” the imam promised before rushing off to the mosque. Peter’s neighbor advised him to leave immediately: “If not, they’ll charge you with blasphemy, and you will not live.”
“My life was destroyed that day,” Peter told me 16 months after that incident, his brown eyes pooling. I met the lanky, reserved 28-year-old man at a church in Bangkok, and later visited the studio apartment where Peter, his pretty wife Uzma, and their 2-year-old son Felix share a secondhand twin-size bed that half fills the room. Other than a pillow, everything in the room—dresser, mirror, electric fans, laptop, even the clothes they wore that day—were church donations.
Like thousands of other Pakistani Christians, Peter and his family came to Thailand seeking refugee status because it’s a non-Muslim country that provides easy and affordable entry to foreigners. But they soon discovered the country’s darker side.
Thailand is one of the few countries that never ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol recognizing the status of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. That means refugees and asylum seekers—even those facing life-threatening situations if they return home—gain no legal protection or rights in Thailand. Under Thai law, families like Peter’s are no more than illegal migrants at risk of being swept up in a crackdown on refugees.
That’s what happened to Peter. At 6 a.m. last March 13, Thai police pounded his apartment door, waking the whole building occupied mainly by Pakistani asylum seekers. As Felix wailed and Uzma wept, Peter begged for leniency, showing the police his UN documents and health reports on his wife’s physical disabilities. Undeterred, the police handcuffed and loaded them into a truck. That morning, the police arrested about 160 people in one complex, including women and children, then shut them in gender-separated Immigration Detention Center (IDC) cells. Because Felix was a toddler, he stayed with his mother in the female cell.
More than 100 men and boys occupied Peter’s cell. Space was so tight the men took turns sleeping back-to-back: no air conditioning, so all stripped down to their underwear. They stuck to each other’s damp skin and breathed in bodily fumes and foul odors when some cellmates couldn’t control their bowels. Fed nothing but thin cucumber soup and white rice, many detainees suffered from malnutrition, digestive issues, infections, and all sorts of illnesses.
At least two Pakistani detainees recently died due to pre-existing health conditions that went untreated in IDC. One was a 30-year-old woman who died on Christmas Eve because officials refused her medication for her long-term health issues. The other was a 53-year-old father of six dependent daughters.
Forty-five days after police detained Peter and his family, a church bailed them out. The pastor had seen Uzma during one of his visits to the IDC and was concerned by her deteriorating health. Peter had a 102-degree fever and a stomach infection. Uzma was barely conscious. Felix was mute and unsmiling. They suffered rashes across their bodies. Although many detainees languish in IDC for months or years because they cannot come up with the funds to self-deport or post the 50,000 baht per person (equivalent to $1,390) bail, Peter prayed for help. God answered through the pastor and his church.
THE UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES (UNHCR) says more than 4,800 Pakistani asylum seekers and 400 refugees are stuck in Thailand. Other organizations such as the Farrukh Saif Foundation say as many as 10,000 Pakistani Christians live underground in Thailand, where they cannot work legally, speak the language, send their children to school, or even walk to local shops without fear of arrest.
I visited the homes of five Pakistani refugee families in Bangkok. Over many cups of Pakistani milk tea, I heard tales of grief, loss, and a deep, suffocating ache for deliverance.
One pastor who faced attacks in Pakistan for preaching to Muslims now teaches his children that such persecutions are expected and welcome: “The crown is there for us; we will focus on that. In the meantime, we keep praying, and we will do whatever God wants us to do.” Others fret about family members back in Pakistan. Two families I met had joined their relatives in Bangkok because of immediate retaliation from the same Muslim assailants.
Meanwhile in Thailand, the UNHCR refugee status process is long, uncertain, and frustrating. Those who’ve undergone their interview process told me how uncomfortable they were to have visibly Muslim interpreters describe Muslim mistreatment of Christians to interviewers. Those who understand English but cannot speak it complain that these Muslim interpreters sometimes mistranslated their words. Many wonder if that’s why Muslim asylum seekers seem to gain quicker and smoother resettlement than Christians who are far more vulnerable, yet still denied refugee status. (UNHCR does not provide statistical breakdowns by religion, but a regional spokesperson said the agency awards refugee status after assessing the “credibility of their claims” based on “information from their country of origin.”)
Many Christian refugees have lost faith in what they call the “increasingly anti-Christian” UN and Western countries. That includes the United States, which has so far ignored the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) repeated recommendation to the State Department to designate Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), which applies to any nation that “engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Today, Peter and his family still wait to receive refugee status. He has changed from a proud, self-reliant barber to a man who gratefully accepts the church’s continuous charity and fellowship. He helps his wife cook and spends hours playing and learning English with his son, who’s now a gabby, people-loving child with curious eyes and thick lashes. “I don’t need money,” Peter said. “I just need my faith. I love Jesus—Jesus gives me everything I need.”
Sohail Arshad was one of the few lawyers in Pakistan willing to defend a Christian whose Muslim employer refused to pay his wages. He and his family paid heavily for his bravery.
Three days after Arshad, a Christian, sent a legal notice to the employer, three men showed up at his doorstep with assault rifles, threatening to kill him unless he withdrew the case. Arshad reported the incident to the police, who said they couldn’t do anything because these men belonged to a powerful Islamic organization. They advised Arshad to hire a security guard.
Ten days later, as Arshad was biking home from work, several gunshots rang out. Arshad flew off his bike, but none of the bullets struck him. He looked around and glimpsed two men with guns running away, as well as the backs of fleeing police officers who witnessed the incident. Later, he received another threat: “We know where your children are.”
Arshad and his wife Sonia Sohail decided it was time to run.
On April 14, 2014, they left their home in Karachi with their daughter and son. Today the family lives on the outskirts of Bangkok in a cramped studio apartment behind locked doors and shuttered windows—just a week ago, immigration police had lugged off several of their Pakistani neighbors. A small fan sputters hot, humid air next to a hard bed. The balcony overlooks a half-crumbled building strewn with broken furniture and trash.
The family has applied for refugee status but has to wait two years—until February 2018—for an interview, which will likely be postponed even further. Meanwhile, their savings are dwindling. “How are we to live until then?” Arshad sighed.
Arshad and his wife worry about their children’s education and nutrition. Their shy, 9-year-old son, Sharoon, understands they left Pakistan because “Christians are dying,” but he sorely misses the variety of meat-laden dishes back home, though he doesn’t miss the old schoolmates who bullied him for being a Christian. Constantly terrified of being arrested by Thai police, Sharoon stays indoors drawing imaginary islands, where his family has a cat and sips fresh juice next to sapphire-blue waters.
Their 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, seldom complains, but she’s gradually giving up her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Once a top-ranking student, she left Pakistan two weeks before her matriculation exams for higher education in pre-med. Sarah said she doesn’t miss Pakistan, but Thailand “isn’t much better” because she misses school.
Since July 2014, Arshad and Sonia, who was an elementary school teacher, started a “learning center” in their apartment for all refugee children. Several days a week, a group of about 30 neighborhood Pakistani children of all ages gather to learn English, geography, history, math, and science; but with the recent raids, few parents feel safe enough to send their children. The Friday afternoon I visited, a group of four girls, including Sarah, were learning English from a British-Swiss missionary. On the whiteboard was Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Local Christian communities donate textbooks and send volunteer tutors, but none of the classes are advanced enough for older students like Sarah. Her mother grieves when she thinks of the opportunities and comforts they cannot grant their children. “All her friends in Pakistan will become doctors, but she’ll still be here, wasting six to seven years,” Arshad said quietly. “It’s a very oppressing and distressing situation.”
The only way they seek peace in this situation, they said, is reading the Bible and praying together as a family. The parents keep reminding themselves and their children, “Our problems are great, but God is greater than the problems.”
PAKISTAN HAS LONG BEEN a breeding ground for anti-Christian discrimination. Most Pakistani Christians grew up hearing insults like “garbage,” “dung,” “kafir” (infidels), and the most common insult of all, “chura”—the Punjabi word for “sweeper,” the lowest, dirtiest job reserved for non-Muslims. During job, housing, or school applications, Christians with better qualifications frequently lose out to Muslims. Public school textbooks contain a strong Islamic slant and derisive depictions of Christians, Hindus, and Jews. In many public and private places, eating and drinking utensils for Muslims and non-Muslims are kept separate.
Over the past decade, however, the global shift toward radical Islam also infiltrated governments, village mosques, and civilian homes in Pakistan. The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has long supported a Sharia bill that would superimpose Islamic laws over all others. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, expanded in the 1980s by the totalitarian regime of Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, already authorize harsh sentences to anyone who offends Islam. The laws criminalize derogatory remarks against Islamic personages, “willful” defilement of the Quran, and disrespect to Muhammad—the latter punishable by death or life imprisonment.
In effect, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws provide a powerful and capricious tool for hard-line Muslims to target religious minorities or settle personal grievances and petty envies. Reported blasphemy cases have increased from seven (from 1927 to 1986) to more than 4,000 since 1986. Half of these cases involved non-Muslims, who make up 4 percent of Pakistan’s population. Outright physical attacks against religious minorities, including kidnapping and rape, have spiked. So have forced conversions to Islam, forced marriages, and illegal confinements, along with the bombing and burning of churches and homes. On many occasions, a blasphemy charge against one Christian mushroomed into mob attacks against entire Christian villages. At least 60 people accused of blasphemy were murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.
One lawyer summarized the situation in Pakistan: “As long as Christians say, ‘Thank you for not killing us,’ you’re fine. But the moment you stand up for your rights, they’ll slaughter you. ... Every moment, you’re choosing whether to accept Christianity or Islam.”
I asked those I visited why they did not renounce Christianity, when conversion to Islam offered them safety, security, and privilege. Every person gave a simple answer like this: Because I know only Jesus Christ and no one else can save me. And because of that belief, they chose to suffer.
See also “Pakistani refugees lose all but find Jesus” and “Immigrants are meeting God in Thai jails.”
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