On Easter Sunday, terrorists linked to the Pakistani Taliban launched a suicide attack on picnicking families in the city of Lahore, killing more than seventy people and wounding another 230, many of whom were Christian women and children. I read the news on Easter Monday shortly before departing to lector at my local Catholic parish in Bangkok.
Standing in Mass as the priest offered the Collect prayer, I glanced beyond the threshold of the open-air church and saw a funeral procession honoring a recently-deceased Thai parishioner. Following the grieving husband were two Pakistani teenagers acting as pall bearers, solemnly carrying her coffin to an awaiting hearse. Understanding why a couple of South Asian kids, far removed geographically and culturally from their homeland, would be participating in this rite may offer one response to Pakistan's mindless Paschal bloodshed.
The Extremists Weren’t Done
The pall bearers in question are members of a sixteen-member extended family living in two tiny one-room apartments a stone's throw from the Catholic parish. My wife and I befriended them shortly after we arrived in Thailand, always seeing them around the church handing out church bulletins, helping with the collection, or other odd jobs. They came to Bangkok more than two years ago following a series of violent assaults in their home city of Karachi, a crowded, crime-ridden metropolis in southern Pakistan.
It began when Muslim extremists falsely accused one member of the family, a young physician, of intentionally tearing a page out of the Quran—a blasphemous and punishable offense. Local priests helped shepherd him out of the country to Thailand, where he successfully gained refugee status, and was subsequently offered asylum in the Netherlands.
Back in Pakistan, extremists weren't done with this family. His sister-in-law, herself a nurse at a Karachi hospital, was accused of attempting to force a Muslim patient to break his fast during Ramadan and trying to convert him. Hospital authorities, themselves terrified of provoking the wrath of unpredictable hardliners, pushed her out a back door.
The patient's son spotted her and her husband getting into a cab, and began shooting at them. They survived and went into hiding, and after a number of months caught a Christmas flight to Bangkok.
A fatwa and Pakistani police warrant were issued against the family, and other relatives were soon targeted, including two teenage girls extremists captured and set on fire. They somehow survived and also fled to Thailand.
Taking refuge under the care of our parish, which now supports thousands of similar asylum seekers, the family applied to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) for formal refugee status, a designation that would put them on a list to be resettled. Many months passed, during which they relied on their own meager savings and tenacious work ethic to make ends meet. After more than a year, they were informed that they had all been rejected.
Before the UN
The de facto leader of the family, the brother of the now Holland-based physician, claims the UNHCR-provided Urdu interpreter was a Muslim unsympathetic to their cause, who lied to the UN about their case. Others familiar with the growing refugee crisis in Bangkok say it's common for an asylum seeker to use someone else's story when offering their testimony before the UN. Essentially, if a different Christian's story of persecution is more compelling , why not try that one instead? It's possible another asylum seeker family stole my friends' story.
The family's last option was to appeal the UNHCR ruling. This process, which is allowed only once, can again takes months or years. The UN is notoriously understaffed and underfunded in Bangkok.
My friends now wait, stubbornly faithful and hopeful that their story will eventually be told enough times that somebody will come save them from this never-ending purgatory of indecision and ambiguity. They are understandably angry—angry with the bureaucratic asininity of the process, and angry that the West has so willingly accepted Muslim refugees, whom, to quote my friends, are “troublemakers.”
I know the reality is more complicated, that the vast majority of Muslim asylum seekers in Europe share more in common with my Christian friends than with the terrorists responsible for Paris and Brussels. Yet the point still stands: for all the rhetoric from conservative politicians regarding prioritizing persecuted minority Christians, what exactly are governments doing to save those communities?
By no means should we diminish the suffering of the Muslims enduring the ravages of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Yet Christian minority populations across the Muslim world are in a categorically different position: they are increasingly unwelcome in their ancestral homes.
I know there are no easy answers to solving this crisis. Moreover, its unfair to blame the usual objects of popular derision. The UNHCR is not resourced to handle what has become a full-blown crisis in Thailand. A few months ago I—admittedly rudely—cornered a UNHCR officer in my favorite burger joint and demanded answers. Though taken aback, he calmly and graciously explained his own dilemmas, and said he would try to help, but I could tell he was in over his head.
Nor would I throw all the blame on the Thai authorities whom Western media have demonized for terrorizing the asylum-seeker population. For all their transgressions, there is a reason why the persecuted Church is fleeing to Thailand. It is a place where they have a decent chance of being left alone.
There is a proper response to the Lahore attack, but it will require more than hollow words from politicians who seem to appeal to persecuted Christians as a convenient talking point to prove they're not totally anti-immigrant. If Germany can absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees, we should be able to accept a couple thousand waiting patiently in Bangkok. Indeed, given their comparatively small numbers and shared cultural heritage with the West, they are prime candidates for any politician looking to bolster his compassionate credentials.
In the interim, a stronger, more coordinated effort to provide material support to this community would be a welcome sign that yes, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that yes, we remember them. We are in many respects helpless against the anti-Christian violence that has the soaked the ground from Lahore to Libya with martyr's blood. But we can make sure their voices, and the voices of their kin in Bangkok, ring louder than any terrorist bomb.
For Further Reading
BBC News on The Christians held in Thailand after fleeing Pakistan and Fox News on Pakistani Christian refugees face ordeal in Thailand
Patrick Sookhdeo’s book A People Betrayed, subtitled The Impact of Islamisation on the Christian Community in Pakistan