Two years after fleeing to the United States, Lakeland resident Junaid Saqib is lobbying American politicians to support the protection of religious minorities in his home country of Pakistan.
LAKELAND — Junaid Saqib’s political activities put his life in danger in his native Pakistan.
Two years after fleeing to the United States, Saqib is lobbying American politicians to support the protection of religious minorities in Pakistan. Saqib said he and other Christians in his home country faced discrimination, violence and restrictions on holding office.
Saqib, 35, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with some members of Congress as well as congressional staff members. He urged them to put pressure on Pakistan’s government to allow full equality and protection for Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population.
Pakistan’s population of 208 million is about 96 percent Muslim, according to a U.S. State Department report.
“We discussed how it’s dangerous for Pakistani Christians to collaborate (with Muslims),” Saqib said of his meetings in Washington. “When you try to collaborate with people in Pakistan, you have fear inside because of the blasphemy law and the discrimination laws. They are so fearful of religious fanatics and cannot express their views openly.”
Saqib has been living in Lakeland since 2017, apart from his family, including daughters ages 4 and 7. He communicates with the girls daily through phone calls and video chats.
As Saqib met with a reporter on a recent morning, he received successive calls from each of his daughters. He briefly chatted in Urdu and promised to call the girls back.
Saqib said he became politically active as a student, and he founded the group Pakistan Minority Rights Commission. He still runs the organization, conducting phone calls and video chats through the night from his home in North Lakeland. (Pakistan is 10 hours ahead.)
Recent news reports suggest Saqib’s timing might be good in renewing his effort to lobby American lawmakers. Politico reported that aides to President Donald Trump are developing plans to make foreign aid dependent on each country’s treatment of religious minorities.
White House officials said the plan is in the early stages, and it isn’t clear if the policy would cover military aid, Politico reported. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Trump vowed to emphasize the promotion of religious freedom.
The United States provided about $837 million in aid to Pakistan in 2017, according to figures from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The majority of that was military aid.
Based on what he hears from friends and colleagues, Saqib said the plight of Christians in Pakistan has only worsened since he left the country.
“Since I moved, I have lost several political friends in Pakistan who were running campaigns with me for Congress, but now they are no more,” Saqib said.
He said the friends were killed at public rallies and meetings in targeted killings and suicide bombings.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Pakistan in November 2018 as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. A State Department spokesperson said the agency is particularly concerned about the use of blasphemy laws and abuses against members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and other religious minorities.
In its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, the State Department cited reports of at least 77 Pakistani residents imprisoned on blasphemy charges, with at least 28 receiving death sentences. The report said Pakistan’s government had not yet carried out an execution for blasphemy.
The report described cases of Christian women being abducted and raped by Muslim men and said victims were chosen as vulnerable because of their religious identity. Saqib said it is difficult for Christians to convince the authorities to bring charges in such crimes unless they can convince a Muslim citizen to serve as a witness.
The government report also said activists claim “widespread discrimination” against Christians in private employment.
Saqib said the office of Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, helped arrange his meetings with members of Congress and staff members when he visited Washington in late September.
“Mr. Saqib reached out to me and my team with some real needs facing real people,” Spano said in an emailed statement. “Here in the United States where the freedom to worship is protected by the Constitution, it is sometimes hard to imagine the depth of persecution the Church around the world faces on a daily basis. I was happy to refer him to my colleagues and several nonprofits who work directly with these issues with the hope that they could find solutions for these unjust practices.”
Saqib said he met briefly with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and had a more extended conversation with Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-New Port Richey. He said he also talked to staffers for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey.
Saqib said he also gave an interview to Voice of America, the government-funded broadcaster, while he was in Washington.
Saqib said he told those he met in Washington about the threat of forced conversion to Islam faced by Christians in Pakistan. He also described government hostility toward Christian schools.
As an example, Saqib cited Edwardes College in Peshawar, a Christian institution founded in 1900 in what was then British India. He said the government nationalized the private college earlier this year, prompting demonstrations throughout the country.
Saqib said the Pakistan Minority Rights Commission has provided free legal services to the college. The PMRC has an executive board of about 500 and about 50,000 supporters, he said.
Among its other activities, the PMRC seeks changes in political representation. Pakistan’s constitution designates a small number of seats in Parliament for non-Muslims, and only Muslims are eligible to be president or prime minister.
“We love our country, Pakistan,” Saqib said. “We don’t hate it, but we need equal rights. We want them to treat Christians as equal citizens. We don’t have any conflict with the government, but if the government wants to make conflict with minorities then definitely we are stakeholders and we will fight for our rights.”
Saqib said he also urged the elected officials to lobby for an increase in the number of Pakistani Christians given asylum each year to enter the United States. Meanwhile, he seeks to form alliances with churches and business groups to support Pakistani exiles already in the country.
“They are facing the same huge difficulties when they come here,” he said. “They don’t know how to apply for asylum, and asylum is so expensive. And they don’t have health insurance, so life is very difficult for them here. I want churches to stand up for them and approach me — or organizations — and I can assist them culturally (on) how to help them.”
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.