On the catalogue of injuries faced by religious minorities in Pakistan

Religious minorities have been living in Pakistan for centuries, but still they are not considered equal citizens. They are persecuted by both state and society. Why?

Aftab Alexander Mughal
25 January 2018

Pakistani Christians attend the funeral of a victim of a suicide attack in Quetta, Pakistan on Dec. 18, 2017. At least eight people were killed and 44 others injured. Asad/Xinhua/PA Images. All rights reserved.Since the birth of Pakistan, religious minorities have been demanding safety and equal rights. Though government officials promise time and again to take necessary measures to protect them, injustices and persecution are ongoing. Just a week ago, five Hazara (ethnic minority) Shia Muslim were killed by extremists. Recently, in two different incidents, two young Christian boys were killed in Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous region. Just a week before Christmas, on 17 December, 4 suicide bombers from ISIS attacked a church in Quetta, Baluchistan Province. They killed at least nine Christian men, women, and children, and wounded 56 others. On 9 October, Arslan Masih, who was 14-year-old, was beaten to death by six policemen in Sheikhupura. And, on 27 August, Sharoon, 17, was killed in the classroom by his classmate in Vehari. According to Sharoon’s mother, her son was killed because of his Christianity. He was warned against drinking from a glass used by Muslim students who called him a ‘choora’ (a derogatory term which often used for Christians in Pakistan).

Pakistan is an Islamic country, which was arrived on the world map on 14 August 1947. When British rulers left the Indian subcontinent, they divided the region into two independent states: India and Pakistan – created as a state for subcontinent Muslims. According to Pakistan’s constitution, non-Muslims are considered a minority, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Kalash, Zoroastrians, and so on. At the time of partition, they constituted 20% of the total population. Today, however, minorities constitute only 3% of Pakistan’s  207 million people because of their continual emigration. According to government statistics, almost 97% of Pakistanis are Muslim - about 80 percent Sunni and nearly 20 percent Shia. 

Hindus are the country’s largest minority, and around 80% live in Sindh province. They carry the burden of historical prejudice. They face land-grabbing, attacks, and kidnapping. Forced conversions, temple desecration, rape, and murder are also reported regularly. Christians are the second major minority community across the country, and about 80%live in Punjab province. They are the poorest section of society and often falsely accused of blasphemy against Islam and face constant violence. During just the first two weeks of 2016, five attacks on churches and Christians were reported by the media.

“Violence against minority groups is deeply embedded within political and social processes in Pakistan,” said Umair Javed, a columnist for Dawn, a liberal Pakistani newspaper. Sadly, many Pakistanis portrayed Hindus as enemies, and Christians as agents of the west. Both communities are also considered infidels, which makes their position more vulnerable. 

Even within the Muslim population some groups are considered minorities. The Hazara, for instance, is an ethnic group within the Shia Muslim community which has been brutally attacked by militant sectarian organisations in Baluchistan province. In the first 10 months of 2017, at least 14 Hazaras were killed in targeted attacks. Since 2002, at least 2,679 Shia Muslims, most of them Hazara, have been killed in Pakistan, according to Al Jazeera. The Kalash is another tiny, peaceful community of about 3,000, which follow pre-Islamic customs. They were forcibly converted to Islam in the isolated Kalash valley. In one of the incidents last year, a young Kalash girl Reena, 14, was converted to Islam under duress. When she ran back to her family, Muslims attacked Kalash homes while police did not provide them substantive protection.

Because of religious prejudice, these communities are regularly discriminated against in education, employment, political, social and cultural life in the country. Asif Khan, a Muslim board member of the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation admitted that spaces in all spheres across the country were shrinking for minorities. An editorial of The Daily Times, an English newspaper in Pakistan, says, “In Pakistan, minorities feel insecure, and this is the result of the discriminatory policies of the state and society towards them. There are numerous examples of injustices that are committed against members of minority communities on an almost daily basis across the country, but the government does not seem to care.” 

Recently a Church was attacked in Quetta by unknown assailants. The police failed to trace them. Last year, on Easter Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 73 people, including 29 children, the youngest only 2 years old, and injured more than 350. A majority of them were Christians. In September 2013, when the federal government was having talks with the Taliban factions, a twin suicide bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar resulted in the killing of 127 Christians. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in creation of Pakistan. 

Pakistan’s minority communities face danger not only from militants and terrorists, but often from their fellow citizens, who consider them inferior. The genesis of this attitude lies in the state’s philosophy, which is based on one particular religion: Islam. Since the birth of the country, the state has been directly and indirectly promoting an ideology which makes minorities second-class citizens in their own land. When hundreds of Muslims attack a Christian locality because of an alleged blasphemy accusation, this is not the act of just a handful of militants. It is a clear reflection of the mindset of the Pakistani public and the general attitude of local society, which is increasingly becoming less tolerant towards minorities. Their message is loud and clear that Pakistan was created only for Muslims. As former President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha stated, “Pakistan has become a state only for Muslims.”

Pakistan’s minority communities face danger not only from militants and terrorists, but often from their fellow citizens, who consider them inferior. The genesis of this attitude lies in the state’s philosophy.

Yet Pakistani scholar Farahnaz Ispahani is of the view that Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted to make a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, not an Islamic state. As Pakistan was created in the name of religion, in many parts of India and Pakistan, large-scale violent incidents started among Muslim, Hindus and Sikhs. At least two million people lost their lives in conflict and around 14 million people were displaced along religious lines on the both sides of the border. 

To minimise religious conflict, Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan, appointed Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Hindu, as Federal Education and Law Minister, and Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadi, as Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Minister. In the first two years, Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly held meetings without any religious symbolism. Yet the nature of governance changed quickly. In 1949, just a year after Jinnah’s death, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan introduced the Objectives Resolution. Islam was declared as the state religion. The resolution tried to establish Pakistani nationhood according to a principle of religious conformity. Thereafter, religion took centre stage in Pakistani society through state policies and its direct interventions. As a consequence, non-Muslims’ status as equal citizens was threatened, and began to diminish.

In 1956, when the country adopted its current name, the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan,’ the lives of minorities changed in another significant way. History tells us that all governments of Pakistan used Islamic ideological card to hold political power. However, the process of ‘Islamification’, introduced and stringently enforced by the late dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977 – 88), furthered this process of discrimination against minority communities. Islamic policies proliferated madrassas, which promoted hard-line ideology, introduced controversial blasphemy laws and instituted Sharia courts in the country. State and society increasingly rejected rationalism and humanism, amping up hostility towards vulnerable minorities. 

The ill-treatment of minorities is two-fold: biased legislation and social intolerance. These two forms of discrimination do not operate in isolation; rather, they work together and are mutually reinforcing The law also contributes to these discriminatory practices. Though the constitution of Pakistan guarantees equal rights for every citizen under Article 25, the same document prohibits non-Muslims from becoming president or prime minister. The same standard applies to other high positions within the government.

This constitutional provision has a trickle-down effect and causes institutional prejudice for minorities. As a result, Christians and low-caste Hindus are often forced into low-paying menial positions as agriculture workers, sweepers and brick-kiln workers. Many are trapped in the net of bonded labour. Such a situation leads to further social stigmatisation and reinforces their economic marginalisation. It is difficult, for instance, for non-Muslim groups to find jobs in restaurants or working as street vendors because most Muslims refuse to accept food cooked or touched by them. Consequently, the majority of these communities live in abject poverty, and are forced to face the worst forms of social and economic discrimination, and social and political isolation. 

Despite all these challenges, minority communities are playing a major role in the development of the country. For example, Christians continue to make significant contributions to the country’s health, education and social development sectors. Ironically, while the Christian community has a long service in promoting education across the country, its own literacy rate is just 19% compared to Pakistan’s overall literacy rate of 58%. 

Among minorities, Christian, Hindu and Kalash girls and women are victims of the worst forms of religious persecution. Apart from other forms of violence, the number of forced conversion cases of girls and women are rapidly mounting. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan reported that every year around 700 Hindu women and girls, many of whom are minors, are abducted, forcefully converted, and then forcibly married to Muslim men, usually their abductors. Christian and Kalash girls face a similar situation. And yet the state is a silent spectator on this critical issue, clearly lacking any  appetite to address it. 

In addition to social intolerance, minorities face persecution of a more threatening kind: being accused of blasphemy. Aasia Bibi’s case is a prime example of this. A poor, illiterate Pakistani Christian woman and mother of five, Aasia was accused of blasphemy in 2009 during an argument with her Muslim fellow field workers, who refused to drink from a bucket of water which she had touched as they said she had defiled it by being Christian. She was convicted by a Pakistani court, received a death sentence, and is now on death row. Both Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, a progressive Muslim, and Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were assassinated for speaking up for her. 

The media, especially Urdu newspapers and magazines, and public schools’ syllabuses are also playing a role in intensifying intolerance against minorities. A study conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute Pakistan has pointed out that textbooks contain a distorted presentation of national history. The views in these textbooks encourage prejudice and bigotry towards women and religious minorities, glorify war and incite violence. Dr Riaz Sheikh Szabist University maintains that the social construction of Pakistani society is based on the religious hatred of people of other faiths. “This is why societal marginalisation in Pakistan has increased where the majority has the power over minority communities, whose space in society has shrunk,” he says. Not surprisingly, then, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) categorises Pakistan as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for religious minorities. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, “State and non-state actors continued to discriminate against religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in law and practice.”

Against this backdrop, there is clearly no quick and easy solutions. Though the situation is not encouraging, there are still some reasons for hope. After terrorist attacks on several churches in Peshawar in 2013, and Lahore in 2014, some Muslim members of civil society made human chains outside churches in many cities during Sunday prayer services to show solidarity with their fellow Pakistani citizens. In its June 2014 verdict on a suo moto case – on its own motion – pertaining to the Peshawar church attack in 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan found “that the incident of desecration of places of worship of minorities could (have been) warded off if the authorities concerned had taken preventive measures at the appropriate time.” It is the responsibility of federal and provincial governments to take necessary actions to implement the judgment of the country’s highest court. Sadly, neither the federal government nor the provincial governments, particularly the provincial government of Punjab, seem to have the will to do this. Last year, the National Assembly approved the Protection of Minorities Bill, which addressed forced conversions. However, it has not yet been approved by the Senate. 

Minorities maintain little hope in the present Conservative government, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, whose success has mainly depended on the support of the right-wing religious vote bank. Nevertheless, after taking office in August, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that the protection of minorities was a priority.

But because of their experiences, minorities do not trust these kind of statements. If the government is to deliver on minority rights, it should make minorities feel they belong in Pakistan as much as any Muslim does.  The government needs to align all its laws with international conventions which would help promote tolerance and religious freedom in the country if it wishes to become an honourable member of the international community. Time has proven that the existing laws are clearly discriminatory in their nature, and policies have not brought any relief to the country and its people; rather they have divided the nation. To turn Pakistan into a diverse and tolerant society, there are fundamental steps that need to be taken – and democratic voices, struggling for a more pluralistic society, should be heard.

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