By Jawad Mazhar, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Pakistan
SARGODHA, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Christians in Pakistan celebrated Christmas Eve amid tight security late Wednesday, December 24, amid fears Islamic militants may try to attack churches and other Christian institutions.
Officials said they had increased police presence in several parts of the country, including in Sargodha, Pakistan’s 10th largest city, where security forces were stationed outside churches during midnight services on December 24 and Christmas gatherings on December 25.
It came as a pastor, identified only as Reverend Marcus, was rushed to hospital in critical condition after bystanders found him drenched in blood on the streets of Sargodha, BosNewsLife learned. Residents suggested he may have had a motorbike accident, but it wasn’t clear if he had been attacked, as he remained unconscious late Wednesday, December 24, doctors said.
Religious tensions have risen in Sargodha, where authorities declined requests to recognize the Christmas holidays for Christian workers. Muslim employees already enjoy breaks during the Islamic festivals of Eid-Ul-Azha and Eid-Ul-Fitr, and church groups wanted similar treatment for Christian employees.
State workers told BosNewsLife that several authorities in Punjab province had not keep a promise to pay a Christmas bonus to Christian employees, including impoverished sanitary workers.
It comes as prices of gifts, edibles, garments and other domestic have been skyrocketing in Punjab, making it even harder for impoverished Christians to celebrate Christmas, according to a BosNewsLife investigation with advocacy and rights organization ‘Rays of Development Organization’ (ROD). Prices of cakes alone, increased by 50 percent, bakers said.
During Christmas Eve services, Pakistani Christians prayed for the prosperity and development of Pakistan and that “God would end Christian persecution and discrimination in the country.”
Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities’ Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, told BosNewsLife he had urged all Christian clergy men and congregations “to earnestly pray for the abolition of the black Blasphemy Laws of the country.”
The laws have been used to jail Christians across the country, rights groups claim. Bhatti has come under pressure to improve the rights of Pakistan’s Christian minority, after he announced there would be “an official holiday on December 26 for Christians.”
However the influential Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan, a Muslim, denied such an agreement had been reached.
Pakistan’s government has refused to recognize December 25 as Christmas Day, saying it will only be viewed as the “birthday of Pakistan’s founder Quid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” not as the birthday of Jesus in this mainly Islamic nation.
However state run television ‘Pakistan Television’ has recorded a special Christmas drama Millaap (Reconciliation) which was to air late Wednesday, December 24.