Pakistan's Brewing Hypocrisy: Muslim Alcohol Consumption and Persecution of Christians

Pakistan's Brewing Hypocrisy: Muslim Alcohol Consumption and Persecution of Christians
In the heart of the upscale Faisal Town in Lahore lies a harrowing secret: Yousufabad (Urdu for Joseph Town), a Christian ghetto in the capital of Punjab, where residents are trapped in a living nightmare. As Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations approached, their fears intensified due to the sudden spike in demands of the local police station for money.

Christians constitute over 1 percent of Pakistan's total 210 million population and 3 percent of Punjab province's population. Despite this, their religious, political, and social leaders have been unable to mitigate the pervasive fear and subjugation these individuals face at the hands of Punjab law enforcement agencies, who engage in moral policing, reminiscent of practices observed in countries such as Indonesia, Afghanistan and Iran.

Across Pakistan, hundreds of Christian ghettos emerged following the country's partition in 1947, as over 300,000 Christians were rendered homeless in central rural Punjab. This displacement occurred when agricultural land, previously owned by Sikhs and tended to by these marginalized Christians as landless peasants, was allocated to Muslim migrants from India, without providing any alternative to these Christians. To deal with this homelessness, Catholic missionaries founded several neighbhorhoods and villages for these local Christians. Yousufabad, nestled next to a branch of St. Anthony's High School, was founded in the 1960s by Belgian missionary Willy Van den Broucke, known as Father Henri. However, little did Father Henri know that the community he built would one day face such dire situation from society and the state.

Missionary Christians have served in the areas such as education and medicine to help build the nation, but local Christians are still regarded as impure whose mere presence or touch may require ritual cleaning. Frequently viewed as proxies of the West, described in local colloquial as the “enemies of Islam”, they are subjected to extreme marginalization. While the Constitution of Pakistan officially states that non-Muslims cannot hold positions such as president or prime minister, societal norms dictate that Christians cannot even do the most menial occupations like gardener or a security guard; hence, leaving them with roles such manual scavenger, sewer cleaner, road sweeper, car washer, or toilet cleaner.

In an attempt to escape the relentless hostility, millions of impoverished Christians seek refuge in their ghettos like Yousufabad across Pakistan. Yet, even in these isolated neighborhoods, they continue to be tormented by blasphemy accusations, leading to the wholesale ransacking, looting, and burning of their houses on the pretext of religious profanity. Over-policing, ironically justified as protection for minorities, further contributes to the perpetual climate of fear and insecurity, and the unbridled the Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order, 1979 being the exploitative tool of operation. Instead of addressing serious crimes, police establish checkpoints at the entrances and patrol these ghettos, subjecting hundreds of Christian youths to humiliating searches and snatching of their valuables each day.

Yousufabad is far from unique among Christian ghettos where sleepless nights are the norm for women, as they anxiously await potential police break-ins without search warrants. Meanwhile, men, particularly the youth, are forced to seek refuge in the shadows, evading police harassment and the potential confiscation of their hard-earned money. As accusations of intoxication fly, those who dare to resist risk being charged under the Hadd Ordinance, accused of drinking and carrying liquor. And, if they dare to speak, they are terrified of being charged under the Control of Narcotic Substances Act, 1997, under which no bail can be granted at least for six months.

Article 37 of the Constitution of Pakistan labels alcohol as a "social evil," mandating that the state "prevent the consumption of alcoholic liquor except for medicinal purposes or, in the case of non-Muslims, religious purposes." However, the Prohibition Hadd Ordinance states that anyone found in possession of intoxicants can face imprisonment up to two years, whipping not exceeding thirty stripes, and a fine. This law does not apply to non-Muslims and foreigners who possess "a reasonable quantity of intoxicating liquor" for use in religious ceremonies.

The Prohibition Hadd Ordinance is an extreme insult to Christianity and other minority religions, by associating blanket term “liquor” and its sale with non-Muslim faiths. According to the Catholic Advent Encyclopedia, fully fermented “wine” is an essential element of the Holy Communion, which contains much lower quantity of alcohol. However, in Pakistan, wine remains unavailable and unproduced by any brewery. The Catholic Church develops its own wine, while Protestant churches only use crushed raisins mixed with water.

The country's largest brewery, Murree Brewery, situated in Rawalpindi right beside the Pakistan Army's General Headquarters, has attempted to produce fermented wine but ultimately failed. Because of this, there is hardly a Christian in Pakistan who has seen wine in his or her life-time but this façade exists to facilitate the rulers of the country. So, the breweries instead of wine produce beer and spirits and sell them under the guise of catering to Christians and other minorities for religious purposes but are primarily produce liquor for the Muslim majority. Mangobazz, a news website, estimates that out of Pakistan's 210 million population, at least 20 million consume alcohol while non-Muslim population is less than 8 million.

Numerous prominent Islamic clerics, politicians and prominent people have been accused of partaking in alcohol consumption. A New York Times story reveals that Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was known for "occasional drinking." Drinking was outlawed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, who famously declared, "Yes, I do drink alcohol, but at least I don't drink the blood of the poor." Bhutto once derisively referred to defected federal Religious Minister, Maulana Kausar Niazi, author of the controversial book on Christianity, The Mirror of Trinity (1975), as "Maulana Whisky" to criticize his defection.

As reported by The Guardian, times have indeed changed since the last person was flogged under the Prohibition Hadd Ordinance in 1980. Notably, former President Pervez Musharraf and his successor, Asif Ali Zardari, have both been open about their fondness for alcohol, The Guardian reports. In a high-profile incident in 2018, politician Sharjeel Memon was arrested by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on corruption charges involving 6 billion rupees. Instead of imprisonment, Memon was hospitalized, during which time Chief Justice Saqqib Nisar made a surprise visit and discovered liquor bottles in Memon's room. However, these bottles were later determined to contain “honey”; which shows only poor religious minorities are victims of this moral witch-hunt.

The Hudood Ordinances were introduced by military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, which required stoning to death for adultery in a public place, amputation of hands and feet for stealing, and whipping for false accusation. In a display of power in 1979, General Zia ul-Haq seized control and began to Islamize Pakistan's legal system. With a series of ordinances, the General aimed to transform the country's British-era legal framework by introducing Islamic criminal laws. As a result, offenses in Islamic laws, known as Hudood Ordinances, were introduced in Pakistan Penal Code which dates back to 1860.

The controversial Zina Ordinance, addressing adultery, sparked a firestorm of criticism for Pakistan as it failed to distinguish between adultery and rape and many Muslim women became its victim. It took another 27 years, and yet another dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, to amend the ordinance in 2006. The laws of amputation or stoning to death have been made toothless but the Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order 1979, which punishes intoxicant consumption, remains untouched and unchallenged as it hurts only beleaguered non-Muslim minorities, which shows that Christians and other religious minorities themselves have to take charge of their destiny.

The minority population, constitutes only a small fraction of alcohol consumers. Interestingly, Pakistani Christians and many Hindus have developed a theology that similarly prohibits alcohol in their religions, just like Islam. This effort seeks to protect the dignity of religious minorities, who are often viewed by the general public as contributing to social ills. Due to the significant social stigma and extreme police brutality, only a small number of Christians are involved in the liquor trade. It is rather, as numerous accounts reveal, that liquor stores cater directly to Muslim customers, employing rickshaw drivers for transportation, while the police turn a blind eye to this consumption by Muslims.

There have been a few voices against the sale of liquor, not the abuse of the Islami Hadd law in the context of Christians. In 2019, for instance, Dr. Ramesh Vankwani, a Hindu member of the National Assembly elected to represent minorities, proposed a constitutional amendment to completely ban the sale of alcohol in the name of religious minorities. Shunila Ruth, a Christian member of the assembly, also asserted that alcohol is prohibited in Christianity as well. However, according to Express News, the National Assembly committee scrutinizing the bill dismissed it as a 'publicity stunt' and a 'mischievous act.'

Unfortunately, the so-called 'publicity stunt' could have potentially shielded Robert Masih (where 'Masih' means messiah) from police exploitation if the National Assembly hadn't outright rejected the proposal. As noted above, the oppressive society is often unwelcoming to Christians in any occupation beyond cleaning waste or sweeping streets. Driven by necessity, individuals like Robert attempt to earn extra income, only to find themselves relentlessly targeted by Punjab police.

With the upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations this April, anxiety mounted for Masih, a resident of Yousufabad: "I know the area police will definitely come to my home, detain me for a few hours, demand money, and release me after extracting it," said the 38-year-old sanitation worker. In 2017, he started selling liquor to Muslims but only a short period of time, Masih got arrested three times so he quit this work. The Faisal Town police have since then lodged ten baseless cases in which he keeps appearing in trial courts. "The residents of Yousufabad took me to the church, brought the police to witness my repentance, but it hasn't worked."

But there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Yousufabad's families are beginning to find their voices and gather the courage to stand against the police brutality. The once-quiet neighborhood is now stirring with the sound of defiance. Yousufabad residents, who should not be named here for their safety, believe that the police view tormenting Christians as a virtuous act. For them, it's an undeclared toll paid to the local police station, where police officers bribe to be deployed so they could fleece money from these poor Christians. This is evident from what they did to 58-year-old Sahib Masih’s two sons. On April 19, the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, when Muslims were eagerly awaiting the moon sighting, Sahib’s son Sharoon Masih was unjustly charged by Faisal Town Police for failing to provide them with a bribe at the picket.

Sharoon, unrelated to Robert, works as a driver for Mary James Gill, a former Punjab Assembly member and well-known minority rights advocate. He was accused of carrying 5 liters of liquor in a canister. "We had arranged an iftari program for around 20 people at Masalawala, and at about 4:30 pm, I asked Sharoon to go home and prepare as I wanted our support staff to attend the event," said Gill, whose office is a mere five minutes away from Yousufabad. "Shortly after, I received a call from Sharoon saying he had been apprehended and taken to the police station on accusations of transporting liquor." Gill decided to visit the police station after the iftari program since guests had already arrived. "I didn't want to involve my father, and after waiting for about three hours, they filed a complaint against me by Assistant Sub-Inspector Muhammad Asif." When  Asif was approached, he remained adamant that Sharoon has found in possession of unauthorized liquor and no injustice or communal prejudice was involved in lodging the complaint.

Sharoon was released on bail the next day, and coincidentally, the police stopped his younger brother, Haroon Masih, just two days later on April 22 at the same picket. Haroon secured his release by paying 1,000 rupees. This time, Sahib Masih couldn't hold back and approached the police, requesting that they test his son for alcohol consumption. Seeing the old man's determination, the police returned the 1,000 rupees to be rid of him. Nevertheless, Sharoon remains fearful that the police will continue harassing him and filing false cases against him, making his life as difficult as Robert Masih's.