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Why does the court ruling to officially refer to Christians as Masihi rather than Esai matter?

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The Supreme Court of Pakistan has directed all the authorities within the country to refer to the Christian community as ‘Masihi’ officially. For this purpose the authorities were directed to make all necessary arrangements in official documents and records to use the word Masihi instead of Esai.

On May 11, Friday, a two member bench of the apex court issued directions while hearing the petition case filed by a Pakistani Christian Samuel Pyara. This two member bench was chaired by the Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Mian Saqib Nisar himself. Justice Ijaz ul Hassan was the other member of this bench hearing the case number H.R.C.No.20171-B of 2018. Samuel Payara had motioned for a change within the country regarding the use of word ‘Masihi’ for Christians instead of ‘Esai’.

Some British Pakistani Christian Association supporters have asked why the Supreme Court ruling to formally refer to Christians by the legal term “Masihi” rather than the term Pakistani Sunni Muslims refer to Christians by “Esai” matters to Pakistani Christians. (Click here) to read more about the ruling. There are different perspectives about whether it matters or not and we want to share some these thoughts on this development.

Some Pakistani Christians appreciate the ruling because if refers to them as they would like to be called. This is possibly to them a sign of improvement because it is respectful to use the term of reference that a group would prefer you call them. However other Pakistani Christian believe it is mincing words and does not have any bearing on real life, but rather makes a mountain out of a molehill.

BPCA researcher Jane Skinner offered the following observation about the Supreme Court's 11 May 2018 order (click here):

"I find that it is merely forming part of the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s Human Rights Case No:20171-B of 2018 hearing 11.5.2018 and with specific reference to the terrorist attack on the Quetta church, that paragraphs 7 and 8 refer which can be interpreted as somewhat ambiguous and the heading 'Complaint regarding the use of the word Esai' almost appears as an afterthought. "

According to Muslims Jesus Christ is called Prophet Isa. Muslims do not call Jesus Christ by the same name as Christians call themselves but use their own theological term of reference and refer to Him as ‘Prophet Isa’. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God and an equal member of the Godhead or Trinity. Christians do not believe Jesus Christ is only a prophet, but the Christ or the Messiah. Jesus is God the Son’s personal name and Christ or Messiah is his title. Both the word Christ and Messiah mean “anointed one” which highlights Jesus' divine nature and mission. Pakistani Christians usually prefer to be called Masihi which is a reference to Jesus being the Messiah and not only a prophet. This being said, the Supreme Courts order found that the use of Masihi was not a contradiction of Sharia law but that government authorities had not put the preferred word into common use.

Calling Pak-Christians Masihi also means that the legal authorities are acknowledging that Christians believe something different about Jesus than is taught in Islam. They are seemingly making an effort to recognized Christians think differently, because they are referring to Christians and Jesus as Christians would deem appropriate. It is polite and respectful to refer to people in terms that they prefer and as they understand themselves so this is a glimmer of hope for more tolerant interactions between Pak-Christians, the state and their Sunni Muslim compatriots, but it remains only a glimmer.

In Acts 11:26, we are informed by the scripture that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” a city in the Roman Empire.
The Apostle Paul would have been very familiar with this term because Antioch is the church he was discipled in and sent from as a minister to the Gentiles or to non-Jewish people. The word “Christian” means “little Christ” or “little anointed ones” and originally it was used to make fun of and mock Christians for following Jesus. However even though offense was meant, none was really taken; it was just a neutral fact that didn’t have anything to do with being a disciple other than to be worthy to bear an insult and be called by Christ’s name.

In Church history, those from the Anabaptist traditions who baptize as adults were first referred to as “anabaptist" by their critics. They were called “re-baptizers” even though they believed that you could only make a confession of faith as an adult and infant baptism in their theological view was therefore not the Christian baptism instructed in the Gospels. Today Anabaptists still refer to themselves as Anabaptists without any regard for the negative, inaccurate origins and bear no hard feelings.

Accordingly some Pak-Christians feel the same way following this Christian tradition and don’t care what they are called by people of other faiths or by the authorities, they know what they believe and don’t let themselves become overly concerned about terminology.

The BPCA has no formal position on this ruling as the consequences of a shift in terminology remains to be seen. It could be true just as with a miniscule adjustment of an angle that is slightly altered. that some time later the line extending from that angle ends up in a different position than the original position would have allowed. It is possible that this action will affect a change in tenor towards and treatment of Christians in the future in someway; but given the systemic indoctrination of the populace via the educational system, which teaches that religious minorities are inferior to Sunni Muslims, an immediate change in society is highly unlikely.  At this point it seems a very sociopolitical move, to gain kudos for burgeoning pseudo-tolerance, but it is not a move that will cause any monumental change for Pak-Christians in their daily lives. It may be of no consequence as prejudices against 'kaffir' (infidels) are deeply held and supported by the Hadith regardless of what those deemed kaffir are called.

If this action is to be thought of as anything significant it is a like a seed that will take a long time to produce fruit. It is not the resulting fruit of tolerance, but a concession that could give exposure to an alternate opinion that might produce tolerance if the majority really come to feel kindness and enact justice as Pak-Christian's may hope.

Keri-Lynn Gibbs, BPCA researcher suggests the following exemplar:

“Names are highly personal, but they also carry sociopolitical weight. The Inuit of Canada are technically the same ethnicity as the Greenlanders of Denmark and American Eskimos.

"The term
Eskimo was originally a derogatory term used by another group of indigenous people who first identified the Inuit to the Europeans by their own terms, language and opinion.

"Eskimo is a historical term used and for some Canadian Inuit the use of Eskimo is not offensive at all, but to others it is very offensive and no longer officially use by government or academia; even though it is still used in the United States and for a major sports team in Canada.

"When I think of the amazing traditional lifestyle of the Inuit I can see that many Inuit in days gone by had little time for such discussions prior to recent academia. Historically the Inuit were too busy with the heroics of daily life in the Arctic’s harsh conditions; and had nothing to prove especially to southerners who knew nothing about their lives. 


Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said reflecting on this comparison:

"Perhaps thoughts about this change in term from ‘Esai’ to ‘Masihi’ is much it is the same for Pakistani Christians who deal with a systematically difficult environment. Although Christians should not care too deeply about what we are called or whether we are being insulted; it is rather nice that the nuance of ‘Masihi’ is truer to the meaning of the word ‘Christian’.

"It could be hearing Pakistani Christians referred to in the same manner as other Christians will be an encouragement and help them not feel so alone.”


BPCA would like to hear from our readership about this subject. Do you feel this court ruling will matter in your daily lives? Do you think it is a glimmer of hope? Is there something you appreciate about the decision or do you think it is mincing words?

Please comment in the section below.

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