Rights organizations claim non-Muslim businessmen are often forced to survive by hiding their identity
Dil Nawaz is used to seeing his Muslim employees refusing cooked meals at his clothing company.
“We understand that. Christian businessmen are usually frightened of allegations of blasphemy and extrajudicial killings. Anybody can exploit us,” said Nawaz.
The managing director of Zarshu, a clothing brand, then remembered being a student at Punjab University.
“Once I objected to the growing pile of rubbish in the canteen. The owner replied that a chura [low caste] will clean it. The discrimination exists but we learn to ignore it.”
Nawaz referred to a pejorative word Pakistani Muslims use to insult Christians. He was addressing a panel discussion on the space for minority-led ventures in Pakistan at the Christian Business Summit 2021 held in Lahore on Feb. 18.
Pak Mission Society (PMS), an Islamabad-based relief and development agency, organized the event attended by more than 250 including experts, academics, researchers and clergy. The speakers discussed the entrepreneur ecosystem in the country, minority-led ventures, integrating Christian entrepreneurs into the mainstream and urged them to show their visibility.
PMS also launched the first-ever business competition for Christian entrepreneurs in Pakistan. The top three ideas, pitched in a two-minute video, can win prizes of up to 400,000 rupees (US$2,500).
Kiran Peter, program manager of PMS, urged the participants to support the competition.
“The competition winners will be connected with mentors and faith-driven investors from around the world who will support their business ideas. We welcome people with both new and existing business ideas as well as those interested in mentoring Christian youth,” she said. “There are very few Christian women entrepreneurs in the country. We offer programs on clubs for Christian CEOs, mentors and female entrepreneurs. Regional Christian businessmen will be divided into chapters, developed into chambers and integrated with mainstream industry from local to national levels.
“It is a journey of changing the mindset and the prevalent slavery mentality. There is a job-based culture among Christians.”
The challenges Christians make up 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of 220 million. Most languish at the bottom of the social ladder. Largely uneducated, they work as street sweepers, trash collectors, farmhands and other menial laborers.
According to a study by the Pakistan Partnership Initiative, a Christian organization based in Islamabad, 70 percent of Christians, particularly daily wagers and laborers, lost their jobs or reported reduced income during the nationwide lockdown last year.
Church leaders say discriminatory treatment is routinely meted out to Christians, who face a lack of employment opportunities and poor access to education despite their contributions to defense and welfare. Government and army advertisements often offer only menial employment to Christians — for example, sanitation jobs — a stance that horrifies the minority community.
In 2018, Sikh activist Charanjeet Singh was shot dead by gunmen on motorcycles at his grocery shop in Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A month later, an investigation officer confirmed to media that the interfaith leader was killed for failing to pay extortion.
Last December, Lahore High Court acquitted Imran Ghafur after he spent more than 10 years in prison for allegedly burning a sipara (a chapter of the Quran) while cleaning his bookshop in Hajweri town, Faisalabad. A mob of about 400 enraged Muslims gathered at his house in July 2009 and beat him before his arrest.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Ghafur was a successful businessman running a shop in the corner of the market. His Muslim neighbor, who ran a laundry shop, produced a partially burnt sipara as evidence. He manipulated local mosques in declaring him a blasphemer.
Human rights organizations claim non-Muslim businessmen are forced to survive by hiding their identity.
Ayyaz Naveed, CEO of a transcription company, agreed. “Pakistani businessmen must hire Muslim employees and think in broader terms. Only
NGOs can survive with exclusive Christian employees,” he said. Government response Mian Abdullah Mustapha, a Muslim representative of the Youth Provincial Assembly of Punjab, pledged his contribution for budding social
entrepreneurs. He urged Catholic leaders to set up funds for interested youth.
“They can offer resources and mentorship. The content taught in Pakistani universities doesn’t promote such skills,” he said.
Ejaz Alam Augustine, Punjab’s minister for human rights, minorities affairs and interfaith harmony, praised PMS.
“It’s a practical program; a roadmap for the future of our community which needs motivation. The church platform should have done it long time ago.
The Church should take the lead. We are challenged by a leadership crisis and improper grooming in politics,” he said.
Last April, Punjab’s government for the first time set a 2 percent quota for students belonging to religious minorities in higher education institutes in a measure long sought by Pakistani activists.