Set within Pakistan’s Punjab province about 40 miles southwest of Lahore, Chak 59 is a rural village where most people work as day laborers. Like many other families here, Christians Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife, Shama Bibi were compelled to work long days at the brick kiln. Their 6-year-old son and two daughters, 4 and 1 ½, will also be expected to work when they are older.
Already outcasts in society, believers in Pakistan are often without work or property. They are marginalized and pushed to the edges of town where factories like brick kilns operate and need laborers. Nearly all of those who work in the brick kilns are bonded servants – essentially slaves to the owner because of the debt that they owe him. Though the practice was outlawed decades ago, an estimated eight million Pakistanis work as bonded servants. Shahzad Masih and his five older brothers had worked at the brick kiln for the last seventeen years. Though he started working around age 13 helping to repay his father’s debt, Shahzad owed the brick kiln owner an estimated 100,000 Rupees or $970.
Virtually all bonded servants are from minority groups: Christians, those from the lowest castes, and people from indigenous tribes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that thirteen out of nineteen brick-kiln workers in Punjab district are Christians. In addition to Shahzad Masih’s family, there were ten other Christian families working for the brick kiln in Chak 59.
Brick kiln work is one of the harshest forms of servitude in Pakistan. Workers – which often include children – endure physical strain and hazardous working conditions. Those who are injured are often forced to continue their work in spite of painful bruises, burns, cuts, sprains, or broken bones.
A Christian lawyer in Lahore stated, “Christian bonded laborers suffer double exploitation as religious minorities and bonded laborers.” Often, they are forced to work harder and punished more brutally and more frequently than Muslim bonded laborers. In spite of laws against forced labor, local government officials rarely protect Christian citizens and often discriminate against them.
One Christian worker at a brick kiln tried to leave after constant mistreatment. He was caught by local police and held for three weeks under a false theft charge. While imprisoned, he was beaten by police officers and his wife was sexually harassed by the brick kiln foreman. After his release, police forced him to return to the brick kiln.
Even where officials try to protect Christians, locals can depend on Muslim sects to carry out extreme violence against perceived offenses. When Chak 59’s brick kiln owner Muhammad Yousaf became concerned that Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi were going to leave before their debt was paid, a rumor was spread that Shama Bibi had violated Pakistan’s longstanding blasphemy law by burning a Quran.
It is not likely that Shama Bibi or anyone in her extended Christian family would have had the means to own a Quran. But with logic pushed aside, a loudspeaker at the local mosque made an announcement on Nov. 4 that Shama Bibi had burned a Quran, and the terror began.
When the mob descended, the Christian families fled the brick kiln. Shama and Shahzad locked themselves in a room, but Muslim radicals climbed on top of the thatched roof and pulled them out. The couple was mercilessly beaten with sticks and shovels. The couple was then tied to a tractor that dragged their beaten bodies around in circles.
As some of their horrified relatives cried for the Muslim radicals to stop, the tractor suddenly turned towards the brick kiln furnaces. The couple frantically begged for their lives. The couple was placed inside the circular holes situated in rows used for stoking the fire pits. Afterward, only their bones remained.
Though the owner, Muhammad Yousaf, along with the brick kiln clerk and 43 others were arrested for their part in the mob attack, it’s not likely they’ll ever face justice.
And today, millions of Christians continue their work at brick kilns throughout Pakistan. They are our brothers and sisters being refined like gold and silver. They need encouragement and prayers.
Sources: VOM sources, International Dalit Solidarity Network, Human Rights Watch