Religious freedom in Pakistan


Earlier this month, a press statement by US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said that Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have been designated as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”.

Some analysts pointed out that this was only done because the US wants to exert pressure on Pakistan for various reasons, especially vis-à-vis Afghanistan. They think the US wants Pakistan to take action against militants based in Pakistan and also wants it to help in its negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Pak-US relations have seen a fair share of ups and downs. The US mantra of ‘Do More’ has become a norm and is part and parcel of its ‘carrot and stick policy’. Putting Pakistan on a religious freedom list may be just a pressure tactic by the US. Others believe that this list is hypocritical. In its editorial titled ‘Religious freedom list’, Dawn newspaper noted: “…some major US allies, such as India and Israel, have been left off the list, even though the saffron brigade has been making life difficult for minorities in India under Narendra Modi’s watch, while Israel has been abusing the rights of Palestinian Muslims for the past seven decades.”

While it is true that the US has placed Pakistan on this list for its own vested interests and it is also true that the list has some glaring omissions, we cannot act like everything is hunky dory in the land of the pure. When it comes to religious freedoms and the rights of the minorities in Pakistan, we don’t have a good track record. Unfortunately, we have a habit of behaving like an ostrich in such situations. As an ‘answer’ to the US putting us on its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, we saw some television shows with minority representatives sitting there telling us how well Pakistan treats its minorities. Instead of self-introspection, we went into a defensive mode. Sometimes, it is necessary to be reminded of how we treat our minorities.

Religious minorities in Pakistan face a very difficult time in the country. Christians in Pakistan have been killed in the name of religion. How can we forget what happened in Gojra or Joseph Colony? How can we overlook the horrible incident when a Christian couple was burnt alive in Kot Radha Kishan? Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of alleged blasphemy, spent almost a decade in jail and despite being acquitted by the Supreme Court still cannot set foot out in the open in her own country. Are we so blind to the plight of our minorities that we cannot see how the Christian community tries to stay ‘out of trouble’ because they are terrified of the majority community in Pakistan? We need to talk about the forceful conversions of young Hindu girls in our country as well. Hindus are portrayed negatively in our textbooks despite the fact that we have a Hindu minority living in our midst. Demonising Hindus in our textbooks and in the media should be stopped. We also need to talk about the plight of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. The Ahmadis are a peaceful community and lives here despite the hardships faced by them with each passing day. We see hatemongers on our television screens who openly bay for the blood of the Ahmadis, yet no action is ever taken against them. Ahmadis live in constant fear. They are the most persecuted religious community in Pakistan. Their worship places are openly attacked; people belonging to the Ahmadi community are killed in broad daylight; their houses burnt; they are discriminated against in educational institutions and work places; they are harassed and threatened but no action is taken against the perpetrators of these hate crimes. Ahmadis have not only been excommunicated in Pakistan but they have also been deprived of their constitutional right to be treated as equal citizens of Pakistan.

Then there is the hydra of sectarianism. Shias in Pakistan are also unsafe and have faced the brunt of Pakistan’s flawed policies of supporting religious extremism. General Zia-ul-Haq’s bigoted policy of creating and arming sectarian outfits has led to Shia genocide in a country that has the largest Shia population after Iran. Such is the sorry state of affairs in this ‘land of the pure’ where no religious minority is safe. Over the decades, our ruling elite gave a lot of support to the obscurantist forces leading to the institutionalisation of segregation and consequently isolation of minorities.

Although being tolerant and democratic was part of the original doctrine of Pakistan’s vision, the white portion of our flag seems to have been soaked in the blood of the minorities. We claim to be a society where the rights of the minorities are protected but the reality is too ugly and too dark. We need to look inward, admit our mistakes and remedy them.

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