Pakistan: The Supreme Court Renders a Historic Decision on Christians

November 10, 2023
Supreme Court of Pakistan

The Supreme Court is requiring the government and all public institutions of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to replace the term “Esai” or “Isai” with “Masihi” when referring to Christian citizens. The measure marks a significant change in recognition and respect for the cultural and religious identity of Christian communities.

This change is long-awaited: the Christian community of Pakistan has actively supported the utilization of the term “Masihi,” being a more respectful word, in the official documents and communications of the government. The term “Esai,” historically used to identify Christians, carries a pejorative connotation which reflects a history of caste discrimination.

In Pakistan, Christians are often designated by the Urdu word “Esai,” derived from “Isa,” the Arab word used by the Koran referring to Jesus. The term “Masihi,” which means “people of the Messiah,” contains no negative connotation. The term “Esai” refers principally to people working as street cleaners and to other activities performed by the inferior castes.

The term “Churha” (street sweeper) has the same connotation, expressing hostility and disgust, referring to the caste of Dalits—the “untouchables.” Over the years, this term has retained and reinforced a strongly pejorative meaning and is used as an insult toward Christians. The term is linked to a social practice.

In Pakistan, it is estimated that 80% of people cleaning the streets and the sewers—without education and situated at the bottom of the social ladder—are Christians, who are still treated as “pariahs” or “untouchables”: people generally avoid shaking hands with them, befriending them, and even eating or drinking with them.

The judgment of the Supreme Court, which received the approval of the Council of Islamic Ideology—an important detail—presents a means to ending this discriminatory mentality: the Election Commission of Pakistan has already removed the word “Esai” from voter registration forms, replacing it with “Masihi,” thus creating a precedent for other departments of government.

In Pakistan, where more than 90% of the population is practicing Muslim, the census of 2017 estimated the number of Christians to be 2.6 million—around 1.27% of the total population. Although Pakistan was founded as a tolerant and egalitarian country, Christians living there have been subject to inferior living conditions and rampant religious discrimination from the start.

According to the NGO Center for Social Justice, public organizations use discriminatory practices—for example, by reserving the most menial sanitation jobs to Christian citizens: between 2010 and 2021, close to 300 job openings called for only “non-Muslims” to apply for cleaning jobs in public organizations.

In January 2022, the Islamabad High Court asked numerous government departments to stop publishing job openings for street sweepers reserved for “non-Muslims.” These abuses find their roots in the caste system of the Indian subcontinent. In the second half of the 19th century, the people of numerous inferior castes converted to Christianity.

Starting in 1870, numerous Dalit Chuhras converted in Punjab. The Chuhras constituted the most important inferior caste of Punjab and worked in menial professions: cleaning the streets and the sewers. In 1947, after the partition of India and of Pakistan, the Chuhras of Punjab—almost all Christians—no longer received education and were confined to menial jobs.

This social stigma remained intact over the course of decades. One of the tools permitting the breaking of this cycle is education, which can propel young Christians toward other, more qualified professions. The literacy rate of Christians in Pakistan reflects the impact of this structural discrimination.

A 2001 report from the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference revealed that, 20 years ago, the average literacy rate of Christians was 34%, compared to 47% for the national average at the time.