“We love our children, but we need food,” says Masih Saddiq, a 50-year-old brickmaker, explaining why none of his 13 children were in school.  They range in age from one-and-a-half to 25; all seem destined to spend their entire lives making bricks, as have their parents.

The brickyard sits outside central Lahore, Pakistan’s second-most populous city.  Owned by a Muslim, it employs several Christian families, all of whom live on his land in a makeshift brick village.  The homes are crammed together, with head-high outer walls creating a narrow alley.  Most homes consist of two rooms, with a small enclosed courtyard.  Even the makeshift toilets are enclosed by bricks.  Occasional mats or rugs cannot hide the dirt floors; dust hangs in the air.  There is no electricity or running water.

Families usually work together, typically 12 hours a day, six days a week.  Each group stakes a plot of land: About a dozen families cover the equivalent of a half-dozen football fields.  One person digs up the clay and wets it; another fills a cart to move it.  Two or three others pack the clay into molds.

The bricks are then left to dry before being fired through burial on top of an enormous furnace—a furnace into which brickmakers have occasionally fallen when the roof has given way.  Finished bricks are then stacked, row after row, for the owner’s representative to count.  Average production is 2,500 to 3,000 bricks a day, at a price of 140 rupees per thousand.  Families earn six or seven dollars a day.

Life is hard; the work is interminable.  “We have no other choice, no other job,” says one worker.  Saddiq’s family, with eight sons and five daughters, has labored in this brickyard for 15 years.  Most of these families are effectively indentured servants.  It is “like slavery,” explains the Rev. Emanuel S. Khokha, the 41-year-old pastor of a Methodist church in Lahore.  Most of the families have borrowed heavily from the brickyard owner—20,000 or 30,000 rupees for a dowry, for instance.  They must work off the debt, which never seems to end.

Some residents are even more vulnerable.  Two orphaned girls, seven and ten, live with their grandparents.  They work in the brickyard.  One 95-year-old widow recently lost her husband.  Unable to work, she lives with her children, who now struggle with one fewer pair of hands.

Yet their faith lives.  Says Saddiq, “I have a strong faith in Jesus Christ.  We’re happy in this situation also.”  Not all brickmakers are Christians.  But Christians, who make up just two percent of the population, account for a disproportionate share.  They are uniquely vulnerable to abuse in a society where discrimination is pervasive.

Persecution of Christians is hardly unusual, but it is noteworthy that America’s chief ally in the “war on terrorism” so brutally oppresses those most favorably inclined toward the United States.  Khokha expresses his faith boldly, meeting us at the airport dressed in his collar and sporting an ichthus pin.  Even before September 11, Christians were seen as believing in an alien god.  “They blame us because Christians are linked to America,” explains Khokha.  “They blame us for Israel and the problem with the Palestinians.  And they blame us because we are Christians.”  Some Muslims have claimed that Pepsi stands for “pay every penny, support Israel.”  Life has grown much worse since last fall.  “In the Afghan war, one mosque was destroyed by bombing, and Muslim scholars preached, we will destroy the churches in Pakistan,” observes Khokha.  “Why?” he asks.  “We are Pakistanis, and this church belongs to Pakistan.  But they say, they are Christians, and you are Christians.”  Nevertheless, he does not despair: “Praise the Lord.  He is using us to testify in our country.  Christians here have a strong faith.”  He adds “We are serving the Lord with gladness.  We are happy in God’s plans.”

Pakistan is a series of dual societies, with obvious economic stratification.  The capital of Islamabad sports wide, tree-lined boulevards, fine government buildings, and a sold-out luxury Marriott Hotel.  But the “economy is very low,” says the Reverend Khokha, and far more people are suffering, especially after the start of the war in Afghanistan.  Christians, in particular, “tend to live in slum areas,” says Khokha.  Down a nearby ravine sits a tent city of 66 Christian families whose mud homes were washed away a couple years ago.  Blankets serve as doors; canvas occasionally acts as a floor.  Makeshift latrines drain into a ditch.

Pakistan has long alternated between dictatorial and democratic rule.  Today, the military, in the person of Pervez Musharraf, is in charge.  Democracy remains the professed goal of most people, including Musharraf.  But Nawaz Sharif, the ousted prime minister, is in exile, and his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, has seen her husband jailed on corruption charges.  Many Westerners fear that elections might bring Islamic radicals to power.

Asked to compare Musharraf, Sharif, and Bhutto, Shagufta Irene Samuel, general manager of the Technical Services Association (TSA), a Christian rehabilitation organization, says that Musharraf “is the best.  I think he is very democratic.”  She had “large expectations” for his elected predecessors, but they were not met.  “The politicians are ruining the whole country.”  Still, on many day-to-day issues, when it comes to the treatment of Christians, Khokha complains that “it doesn’t matter which government.  They are all the same.”

Religious tensions are equally obvious.  Pakistan is formally an “Islamic Republic,” governed by sharia.  Mosques abound, and copies of the Koran replace the Gideon Bible in hotels.

For many, this is only a matter of appearance.  A nattily dressed elite wears Western clothes; teens wear jeans and cargo pants (but never shorts or short-sleeved shirts).  These Pakistanis ignore the call to prayer as it wafts across their neighborhoods, and they travel overseas to almost any destination except on a Haj.  They join Americans in dining at Pizzeria Uno.

This is the Pakistan that supports Pervez Musharraf in his quest for a more secular state.  But there is another Pakistan evident even in Islamabad, and especially in a city like Peshawar, on the border with Afghanistan.  Bearded men wear a uniform of baggy pants and shirt rather than suit; women navigate crowded streets while wearing a burqa.

Although Americans stand out in many foreign countries, rarely does their conspicuousness seem so dangerous.  There are angry stares even on the capital’s streets and in major airports.  In more distant locations, hatred fills the eyes.  Not that you can always see the eyes—or need to.  In Peshawar, a woman in a burqa shouts at me and two other Westerners as we walk toward her neighborhood: “They are not Muslims; they are bad people.  The Americans are not good.  They are hurting our people in Afghanistan.”  Khokha literally pushes us back into our van: “They are dangerous people, angry people,” he explains.  Even in Islamabad, we find police signs, in English, announcing an “emergency service for foreigners.”

“Discrimination is everywhere,” a resident of one poor neighborhood tells me.  It begins with children and extends through school, work, government, and the rest of life.  Kids “don’t want to be friends with Christians,” one 12-year-old says.  Even when allowed to attend school, Christians are isolated and ignored.  Sometimes teachers will tell them “you are not good,” complains one parent.  “So school teachers will fail them.  There is great discrimination.”  In local sports such as cricket, a Christian team is less likely to be chosen to advance.

Employment for everyone in this poor society is tenuous, but especially for Christians.  Jobs are offered to Muslims first.  One young resident of a poor neighborhood, where her monthly salary of $20 was a princely sum, was fired by her Muslim supervisor, who disliked her faith.  She now spends her days in a two-room hovel, surrounded by others longing for work.

Charity would help, but Pakistan is not a wealthy society where private aid abounds.  Moreover, what little assistance is offered tends to be restricted to Muslims.  “If Christians ask for help, the Muslims say that the tithe is not for non-Muslims,” Khokha explains.  I met a Christian who works for a hospital administrator; even at his facility, built in part with U.S. aid, care is limited to Muslims.  Impoverished Christians are often pressured to convert.  Says Khokha: “When crisis comes, some poor Christians become Muslims, as Muslims say, ‘then we will help you.’”

The 66 Christian families in Islamabad whose homes were destroyed by flooding can’t afford new homes, and the government won’t allow them to build where they are.  So relief agencies have given them tents.  A local Catholic church supports them sometimes.  But “we get nothing from the government,” one man tells me.  In fact, “sometimes high officials and police come and destroy our tents, and tell us to go somewhere else,” because their makeshift village is embarrassingly close to a government building and a mosque.

Foreign aid is no answer, since Islamabad directs even humanitarian assistance, and the resulting jobs and services, toward Muslims.  Says Khokha: “If an international agency comes and gives support door-to-door, we can survive.  But international agencies give to the government.  They don’t give it to us.”  Jobs created by foreign aid are parceled out politically: “Overseas agencies need people for labor, but no one calls us Christians.  If there are jobs available, they are not calling us,” says Khokha.  Even money meant for private aid organizations goes elsewhere.  Samuel observes that the state “doesn’t help us.  There is a lot of money from elsewhere, for the government and NGOs.  But they never give us any clue how to get that funding.  They won’t even give us the forms to get it.”

Discrimination pervades the political system.  The electorate has long been divided between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Musharraf plans to change that, but little else is likely to change.  Islamabad has never been noted for its responsiveness to its citizens, and Christians have low expectations: “If a Christian wants a service in a government office, he can’t get it because he is a Christian,” complains Khokha.  The poverty of Pakistan intensifies discrimination.  “Our government is also poor, so it doesn’t supply Christian people,” one Christian notes.  Some slights are small, while others greatly affect living standards.  For instance, Pakistan’s poor enjoy few property rights.  Most at risk are Christians.

One community of about 60 families has spent 35 years in makeshift homes on army land in Lahore.  Made of brick or stucco, with tin roofs, mud walls outside, and dirt courtyards, these homes often hold two large families.  Five or more people are frequently packed into small rooms, of 100 square feet or less.  Of his one-room home, one man jokes: “This is the bedroom.  And the dining room.  And the TV room.”  Others sleep outside: “There is no privacy,” observes one.  Sometimes rugs are used as doors to the outside.

Some residents inherited their dwellings from their parents.  “Our forefathers were here before partition [of India and Pakistan in 1947],” notes Javed John, a local pastor.  Yet the government refuses to provide public services: We “need a sewer line, we need a natural gas line,” one man complains.  Islamabad also destroyed a small church that they had built.  “We want a church, but the government won’t allow it,” says John.  Why not?  “This is the army’s place, not your place,” one man was told.  “The government wants us to go somewhere else,” says John.  The military said it wanted to build a plaza on the land.  Yet the Muslim neighborhood next door is also on army property, and its members have been allowed to lease their land and build a mosque.  “Here is a very dangerous situation,” says John.  “By the grace of God we are still here, as they want to remove us.”  If the government would offer them some other land, they would go.  “But the government doesn’t offer.”

Even those whose ownership is not in doubt cannot get services for their land.  Nearby in Lahore, a group of 70 families has purchased property on installment, starting in 1993.  They have built not only homes but a church.  Indeed, the church was the first building that they constructed, even as they lived in tents.  But the roads are dirt and animals, including a cow in a makeshift pen, wander the property and share courtyards with the people.

Inside their homes, residents have created a clean and warm atmosphere, highlighted by pictures of Jesus and other Christian imagery.  There is no electricity, even though they sit astride a power line.  Muslim neighborhoods, however, have electricity.  A Muslim mausoleum lights up at night.  The poultry farm next door has power.  “We have applied for electricity many times,” one resident tells me.  But the government replied that the cost to connect would be $7,000, an impossible sum.  “We just can’t afford it,” says one frustrated man.  “The government will give electricity to chickens, but not to Christians,” says another resident.  “It is a terrible situation.”

Yet, observes Khokha as we leave, “they have a strong faith in Jesus Christ.  They have many problems, but retain a strong faith in Him.”

Unfortunately, the next generation of Pakistani Christians will be uneducated.  Only about five of the residents of this neighborhood can read.  When Christian children are officially permitted to attend school, cost is a barrier for Christian families.  Khokha is late to meet us one morning because a family was threatened with having its two children tossed out of school.  The husband, a painter, had been injured in a work accident, so the family could not pay the $40 annual tuition for each of their two children.

Once in school, Christian children must learn and pass the subject “Islamia,” which teaches the tenets of Islam.  “You can’t graduate without it,” explains TSA’s Samuel.  “And if you don’t take it, the tester knows you are a Christian, and you will never get through.”  The bottom line: Submerge your faith or suffer.  

Government employment is also limited, and in Pakistan, the state is the best option in a grossly politicized economy.  “Government is the best job in the world,” says Khokha, but this avenue is often closed to Christians.  “We apply for the jobs,” even menial ones, and “we can’t get them,” one poor resident told me.  Large bribes must be paid—10,000 or 20,000 rupees (a year’s wages) to become a street sweeper, for instance.

The natural result of such restrictions on education and employment, with few countervailing private opportunities in a state-dominated economy, is to lock the mass of Christians into poverty.  Rarely do fewer than a half-dozen people rely on one worker for support.  Once working, Christians can ill afford to retire.  “These are the small things that we go through every day, which most people don’t hear about it,” says Shagufta Samuel.

On top of these severe economic restraints comes official harassment and even persecution.  Christians are largely left alone in their own areas “But not outside.  We can make a new church in a Christian area.  But not in a Muslim one.”  Indeed, complains Khokha, whose congregation includes about 300 families, “Muslims call if we have a meeting, and we get persecuted.”

Christians cannot count on any legal protection.  Samuel’s TSA provides shelter for women.  “A lot of women are molested by elite people,” she explains, often the families for whom they are working.  “They have no place to go, and the human rights commission sends them here.”  Muslim women are also abused, she notes, but the system is less responsive to Christians.

Even worse is criminal prosecution.  “It’s terrible,” explains Khokha.  “Ten years ago you could pass out Christian literature, but now there’s the anti-blasphemy law.”  When Christians handed out Operation Mobilization materials, the government “put people in jail.”

Pervez Masih, a Christian teacher, was imprisoned last year after answering a student’s questions about Muhammad’s life (his marriage to a young girl, for instance); Masih was denounced by the administrator of a rival school.  “A lot of blasphemy cases are brought against Christians,” complains Samuel.  But such trials are rarely reported in the media and are often conducted in secret.

Converts in Islamic Pakistan face death; for this reason, Masih Yousaf, a member of Khokha’s congregation, has received political asylum in America.  “He can’t come back,” says Khokha.  Masih’s wife, Elvina, and their three children remain in Lahore, fearful for their safety.  “I’m afraid here,” Elvina explains.  “It’s not safe.”  She lives with her 25-year-old nephew, Jabeen, whose father, a Christian convert, was murdered by a mob that pushed him off a cliff.  “Everyone has a gun, everyone is angry,” worries Khokha.  After a significant delay, asylum has been granted and visas finally issued to Masih’s family.

In March, two men killed five Christians, including two Americans, in a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad.  Last October, gunmen stormed a church in Bahawalpur and slaughtered 15 Christians, including the minister.  They screamed “blood for blood,” apparently suggesting that the killings were in retaliation for America’s war in Afghanistan.

St. Anthony’s Church in Lahore has been vandalized and subjected to bomb threats; the authorities have shown little interest in intervening.  A small Assemblies of God church in Islamabad was destroyed after Christmas; the government proclaimed the explosion to be the result of a gas leak, but did little to investigate.  Just two days before we arrived in mid-January, says Khokha, Muslims beat a pastor and his family in a village near Lahore.  Since September 11, the mood has been “very tense,” observes Khokha.

Responding to intense Islamic criticism, the Musharraf regime has backed away from reforming the blasphemy law and has allowed provincial application of sharia.  Musharraf does deserve some credit for dropping the separate electoral lists for Muslims and religious minorities: “He said that we are all Pakistanis now,” explains Khokha.  The Musharraf government has begun moving against the Madrassahs, the fundamentalist Islamic schools that have spawned so many mujahideen.  And he seems committed to breaking the security service’s ties to militants.  Khokha confesses that “We praise the Lord for Musharraf.  Musharraf is from God.  Sharif and Bhutto couldn’t do it.  But Musharraf took brave steps.  He banned the fundamentalists.”

Pastor Javed John asks me to “Please convey the message to the American people that there are so many problems with Christians” in Pakistan.  “Christian people are very poor.  We need your help.  Please pray for us.  Support us.”  Christian Freedom International is attempting to help brickmaking families escape their perpetual servitude, by providing education for poor children and aiding families in need.  Such small-scale initiatives can make positive improvements in real people’s lives, unlike massive government-to-government aid programs.

Odd as it may seem, Pakistani Muslims are much more likely than Christians to receive a visa to visit the United States.  That might not be the intent of U.S. officials, but it is the inevitable result of their policies.  The federal government does not want anyone to come here who might stay, so it demands that applicants produce evidence of extensive ties to Pakistan.  Since Christians tend to be at the economic bottom of Pakistani society, they have a harder time meeting U.S. requirements—to show a bank account, for instance.  “A Muslim has property,” says Khokha.  “We don’t.  They say you’ll stay in the U.S.  In contrast, Muslims show property, business, land.”  And so they get visas.  One of the deacons in Khokha’s church has been turned down four times for a visa, despite invitations from Christian churches in America.

Islam has clearly proved, throughout most of the world, to be a religion of discrimination.  The life of Christians in Pakistan is extraordinarily difficult.  They need support and prayers from Christians in America and around the world.  “Remember us in your prayers.  Don’t forget us,” implores the Reverend John.