Pakistan’s religious minority problem

Published Date: August 13, 2013 | Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Religion

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On Sunday, August 11, Pakistan will celebrate National Minorities Day, giving recently-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif his first formal opportunity to recognize the value of religious minority communities to the nation. 

Created in 2011, this day is a bittersweet irony for Pakistan.  

On the one hand, it recalls the inclusive and tolerant vision of the past: of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, whose speech to the nation on August 11, 1947 included these words:

“You are free.  You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship…You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

On the other hand, it highlights the stark realities of the present: how Pakistan has betrayed Jinnah’s vision by failing to fulfill his words with concrete actions that protect religious minorities from harm.  Indeed, Islamabad has done little to stem a rising tide of violence against members of Pakistan’s Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu, Shi’a, and Sikh communities.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released the findings from its Pakistan Religious Violence Project.  Tracking publicly reported attacks against religious communities over the past 18 months, the project collected alarming data that catalogued the human toll of Pakistan’s intolerance and hatred.  During that time period, there were more than 200 incidents of sectarian violence that led to 1,800 casualties, including more than 700 deaths.

Many of those killed or injured were Shi’a citizens, with some of the most lethal assaults taking place during Shi’a holy months and pilgrimages.  During the year-and-a-half period covered by the study, there were 77 attacks against the Shi’a, 54 against Ahmadis, 37 against Christians, 16 against Hindus, and 3 against Sikhs.

Since the publication of USCIRF’s report, the death toll has continued to rise.  On July 27, at least 57 people were killed and more than 150 wounded by bombs targeting a market frequented by Shi’a in northwestern Pakistan.

To his credit, Sharif raised concerns about the plight of religious minorities in his maiden speech to Pakistan’s National Assembly and tasked his government to crack down on militants targeting the Shi’a.  Hopefully his comments reflect a realization that the time for mere talk and symbolism has passed and that resolute action is needed to ensure that the perpetrators of violence against religious communities are arrested, prosecuted, and jailed along with the violent extremist groups that have spurred the bloodshed. 

Moreover, police officers must be held accountable for thwarting justice when they turn a blind eye to attacks or refuse to file police reports when the victims are religious minorities.  

With luck, Sharif’s comments also intimate that the government will reconsider its enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws which violate international human rights standards and encourage extremist attacks on perceived transgressors.  Just recently, a Christian man, Sajjad Masih, was found guilty of denigrating the Prophet Mohammed and sentenced to life imprisonment, despite the accuser recanting.  He joins nearly 40 others who either are on death row or serving life sentences for allegedly blasphemous activity. 

Interestingly, Masih’s sentencing occurred on the eve of the fourth anniversary of attacks against Christians in Punjab in the village of Gojra — where Masih is from– in which eight were killed, 18 were injured, two churches and at least 75 houses were burned, and not a single perpetrator was brought to justice. 

Pakistan’s surreal inversion of justice, in which some are punished for alleged words and beliefs while others commit literal acts of violence against them with impunity and without consequence, must end.  Sharif’s government must prove it is serious about ending this dual attack on its most vulnerable citizens.  One simple step it can take immediately is to reopen the Federal Ministry of Interfaith Harmony and reaffirm its mission of promoting respect for members of all religious communities, particularly religious minoritiesIn the meantime, USCIRF will keep monitoring the situation and the Sharif government to determine whether it should continue recommending that the United States designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern,” marking it as among the world’s most egregious violators of freedom of religion or belief.

Sixty-six years ago, Pakistan’s founding father laid a dream of equality and freedom before his nation.  It is time for Pakistan’s government to honor that dream not merely by repeating its words, but enacting it through deeds.

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