This week we celebrated Red Wednesday, a day to remember those suffering religious persecution around the world. Fr Arnold Heredia, of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, is a retired priest from Pakistan who has been working to assist and support Christians fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan.

Since retiring as a priest in 2016, Fr Arnold set up the organisation LinCoN (Links & Consolidation Network) dedicated to helping those fleeing Pakistan resettle in safer parts of the world.

Sometimes persecution is a clear-cut matter, with a centralised state proactively tracking and arresting Christians. But usually, the reality of religious persecution is much more complicated.

Pakistan is an Islamic country, with a 95 per cent Muslim population. Yet it has a small but longstanding Christian population, who, long before Pakistan’s formation in 1947, lived in the region peacefully alongside Muslim neighbours. This all changed in the 1980s, says Fr Arnold, during a time of political upheaval. New leaders of Pakistan introduced laws that included life imprisonment for offenses against the Holy Quran and life imprisonment or death for those who maligned the Prophet Muhammed.

Now if someone wants to accuse a Christian of blasphemy, they don’t need a witness. Anyone can say that someone has abused the Prophet or desecrated the Quran,’ says Fr Arnold.

And that, for many, is as good as a death sentence, since an accusation of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad or of desecrating the Quran can lead to execution or imprisonment for life respectively, in Pakistan.

For decades, Fr Heredia has seen these laws result in flagrant abuses of human rights. He explains scenarios where Islamic extremists have tried to coerce Christians to convert, and failing that, fabricating stories of them slandering Muhammad.

Christian belongings burnt by extremists. Image supplied by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

In 1972, Fr Arnold helped establish Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf (Committee for Justice and Peace), a Karachi-based NGO set up as a joint initiative by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Karachi and the Church of Pakistan. For forty years, the group has campaigned for social justice, particularly advocating for poor and marginalised Christians and Muslims to obtain basic employment rights.

Fr Arnold served as executive secretary of for 21 years, while also editor-in-chief of the organisation’s magazine called Jafakash (the hard worker). All the while holding other roles like parish priest of St Francis Parish, Karachi, and Rector of the Christ the King Seminary.

While maintaining these various positions, Fr Arnold developed a reputation for his ability to work across cultural divides, partnering with local human rights groups. All people no matter their religious background called him ‘Father.’ In recognition of his commitment to the cause of human rights, Fr Heredia was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1986.

And yet Fr Arnold himself had to flee Pakistan. He took part in an anti-Blasphemy Laws protest in Karachi in January 2001, and was arrested with 17 other protestors. He was detained on 10 January, then released on 17 January without explanation. Three months later, he moved to Australia and from 2001 to 2016, served as the Parish Priest of Saint Peter’s Church, Epping.

Fr Arnold was not in the country when an issue of Jafakash covered Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. And on 25 September 2002, Islamist gunmen entered the Idara-e Amn-o-Insaf office and murdered seven Christian employees, shocking the world and receiving global media attention.

Christians demonstrating in the streets of Karachi. Image supplied by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

Naturally, when facing persecution of this magnitude, many Christians find themselves in situations where they know they must flee or lose their lives. This raises a new raft of issues.

To become a refugee, those fleeing persecution must be out of the country of their origin. Thailand is a common one. There, they apply for asylum with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. They attempt to prove they are a refugee, which can be difficult. The interview can be held three to four years later, and even with a legitimate claim of persecution, can lead to failure.

Through his organisation LinCoN, Fr Arnold has often provided people life-saving guidance and support through this process, and has now helped resettle several Pakistani Christians suffering persecution.

‘I ask them to send me the story they submitted to UNHCR, and the UNHCR’s refusal document stating the grounds on which the application was refused.’ The people seeking asylum, he explains, are not the sort of people who have experience fronting UNHCR inquiries. ‘They’re only semi-educated, high school at most.’

It’s an intimidating process. The interview is in English, which leads to another problem: the translators are Pakistani Muslims, and may have an implicit bias, Fr Arnold says. Given there’s a quota system of the numbers of refugees from any one place, the translators have been known to water down the cases of Christians.

Because the onus of proof is on the victim of persecution, many applications ‘are doomed to fail,’ he says. ‘Because they cannot produce any documents.’ Being unable to prove their persecution on paper is often the central problem faced by those who seek asylum.

Police should technically be able to provide documentation, but this rarely happens. Why? ‘Christians are nobody in Pakistan.’ According to Fr Arnold, those who approach police claiming religious persecution, cannot be sure police will not side with the accusers.

‘They might say that if you were blaspheming the Prophet, you deserve to be killed.’ Police have been known to receive threats when investigating instances of religious persecution.

When police take on cases like this, fanatics have assassinated the police officer or bombed police stations who tried to pursue these cases.’

As such, the police would prefer people handled such cases privately.

‘Fanatics are few, but the trouble they create in Pakistan, no state authority dares challenge them,’ Fr Arnold says. Those who could provide a support letter or documentation that verify persecution are too scared to provide them, lest they themselves be accused of aiding a blasphemer, he explains.

A Christian man protesting violence against Christians in Karachi. Image supplied by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

When Pakistani Christian asylum seekers are facing these issues, they contact Fr Arnold. He phones his network of churches and human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

With the tenacity of a veteran in this field, Fr Arnold begins his own investigations and either finds out information that supports the story of the asylum seekers, or draws statements from human rights associations about the veracity of similar cases. He requests them to send those testimonies to support their claim for asylum.

The work he does is in the bureaucratic back-end of connecting people, organising documentation and presenting their case in the best possible light. ‘It takes a lot of time,’ he says simply.

Fr Arnold recounts the story of a man he is assisting, Safaras Yusuf, a Christian who started an organisation called ‘Sukh Life Association’ (Giving Joy Association), a youth-based organisation to motivate troubled youth. He was in a tea shop with some colleagues, discussing the organisation when he was approached by men who overheard their conversation and wanted them to convert.

Safaras left, and within ten days the man visited his workplace, demanding that he accompany him to the headquarters of his evangelical Islamic group to embrace Islam.

He blatantly accused Safaras of speaking disparagingly of the Prophet. Safaras went into hiding for two weeks and when he returned, found the men had been monitoring his offices and attacked him.

A fight was broken up, with his attackers giving him an ultimatum to come to the Grand Mosque the following day to embrace Islam. When Safaras told his colleagues, they all immediately quit and closed the office down. That night Safaras took his family and fled to another town and then to a human rights office where he was moved to a safe house for a month, while officials attempted to verify his story. To seek refugee status, he fled to Bangkok in 2013, where his case is still being processed.

The fanatics have a knack for finding people.

These people have complex underground intelligence systems for tracking and tracing people. Someone might escape from them and go into hiding, but word will get out somehow and one day they will just be gone.’

For this reason, such families feel compelled to flee the country.

Since 2012, over 5,000 Pakistani Christians have fled to South-East Asia hoping to gain asylum, with 2,000 currently in Bangkok. 'Each family has their own story of being harassed, threatened or beaten, or worse.’ Yet most of these have been declared ineligible by UNHCR due to a lack of documents.

‘It is our hope to assist these destitute families whose lives have been ruined.’