Being a member of an ethnic or religious minority in Pakistan brings with it inherent risks – something dramatically illustrated in Peshawar in September 2013 when a bomb attack on a church [ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/23/pakistan-church-bombings-christian-minority ] killed at least 85 people.
The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 [ http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper ] notes that the 5 percent who constitute the non-Muslim population in a country of just over 190 million face persecution in many forms, including “attacks on houses of worship, religious gatherings, and religious leaders perpetrated by sectarian, violent extremist, and terrorist groups.” These result in hundreds of deaths 2013.
Like Christians, Hindus, who make up just under 2 percent of the population, face growing persecution [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/94969/pakistan-abducted-and-forced-into-a-muslim-marriage ], particularly in the form of their “forced” conversion to Islam, notably of young girls who are wed to Muslims and made to adopt Islam.
“We hear of dozens of such cases,” said Amarnath Motumal, a Karachi-based lawyer and Hindu community leader. “We have no issue when an adult Hindu woman, aged over 18 years, opts to marry a Muslim, but in the case of 14- or 15-year-olds, coercion and even abduction is not uncommon. Besides, the marriage of girls under 16 years is against the law.”
Parliament has taken up the issue of the conversion and abduction [ http://tribune.com.pk/story/441509/safeguarding-hindu-rights-parliamentary-panel-to-probe-forced-conversions/ ] of Hindus. A report based on an inquiry begun last year is expected soon.
The Ahmadi community
Members of the minority Ahmadi community, which faced the worst attack [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/89303/pakistan-ahmadi-minority-fearful-after-militants-kill-at-least-80-members ] in its history in 2010 in Lahore when around a 100 were killed, say they live in constant fear.
The group considers itself Muslim, but was in 1974 declared non-Muslim under Pakistani law, on the basis of beliefs seen by orthodox groups as being controversial. There are an estimated 3-5 million Ahmadis in Pakistan.
“Naturally there is fear. Pamphlets are distributed, saying Ahmadis should be killed as infidels,” said Qamar Suleman, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community in the town of Rabwah in the Punjab.
“Attacks on members of our community are reported from across the country, threats are made to them and recently, in educational institutions, there has been an increase in harassment, even of very young children. A plan was made by the peers of an Ahmadi college girl at a Lahore private institution to have her run over by a car.”
He said he saw no signs of improvement in the situation – indeed many talk of a deterioration.
The ethnic Hazara minority [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/94806/pakistan-quetta-s-hazara-community-living-in-fear ], comprising some 6,000-7,000 people according to its leaders, have also faced attacks.
It is targeted both because it is an ethnic minority concentrated in certain parts of Quetta and speaking Farsi, and because nearly all Hazaras are Shia. “The Hazaras are targeted due to both these factors, and we have no protection,” Abdul Qayuum Changezi, chairman of the Hazara Jarga representing the community, said.
For months, the community has lived under siege with roads to predominantly Hazara areas blockaded, but this has not prevented bomb attacks such as the one in January this year [ http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/01/2013117124512947691.html ] that killed 96. Other attacks [ http://www.hazara.net/2013/06/bomb-blasts-targets-hazaras-once-again-in-quetta-pakistan/ ] have taken place since then.
The Kihal community
The Kihal are another community under pressure. Samu Kihal, a member of the indigenous Kihal community with whom IRIN last spoke in 2010 [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/89726/pakistan-the-river-has-been-stolen-from-us ] said: “Things have been getting worse and worse for us since then. People say we are `dirty’ and now they sometimes don’t even pay us as beggars – saying they will give their money only to Muslims.”
The Kihals have for centuries lived along the banks of the River Indus, making their living from fishing or using reeds to construct river craft.
However, rapid development along the Indus, and in some cases, according to Samu Kihal, “the seizure of lands that were ours for generations” have threatened their livelihoods and homes.
While the Kihals say they are Muslim, the majority population rejects this on the basis that they eat `impure’ food prohibited to Muslims, such as crocodile meat. As a nomadic population they are also not entitled to national ID cards, which require a fixed address, meaning that Kihals cannot vote. “We are not even considered people,” Samu Kihal said.
The Kalash community
The Kalash community, who inhabit three valleys in Chitral District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, are a pagan group. They follow an animist faith.
“In my lifetime of over 70 years I have seen our culture torn apart; our people convert to Islam just to stay safe, even though in practice they follow our ancient beliefs,” said Shimshaala Bibi, in Chitral.
Apart from the pressures on them to convert, incidents such as the 2009 kidnapping [ http://www.kalashwelfare.org/index.php?/about-kalash/the-kalash-today/ ] of a Greek charity worker have led to a worsening in their situation.
Though NGO activist Athanassios Lerounis was released some seven months after his abduction [ http://www.kalashwelfare.org/index.php?/about-kalash/the-kalash-today/ ], allegedly by Taliban-style militants, the incident brought more security force deployments [ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/17/taliban-kalash-pakistan-afghanistan ] in the Kalash valleys and, according to local people, a bigger threat from the Taliban who frequently target state forces.
“Because there are more men in uniform, we fear more attacks,” said Razzak Shah, from the main Kalash Valley of Bumburit.
The Kalash are thought to number 3,000-4,000 [ http://historypak.com/kalash-valley-of-12-villages/ ] individuals, with a rapid fall in numbers seen mainly as a result of forced conversions to Islam. Estimates as to numbers [ http://tribune.com.pk/story/591542/a-different-shade-the-fading-colours-of-kalash/ ] vary, with some accounts stating there are around 6,000 Kalash.
Bibi says people who try to help them have been driven away, and she fears a day could come when the Kalash exist “no more”.
The Shia community
While the Shia sect, making up some 25 percent [ http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper ] of the Muslim population, considers itself a part of the Muslim majority, it has in recent times been subjected to more and more attacks by orthodox groups from the Sunni majority community who question some of their beliefs.
In July 2013, 57 Shias died in a bomb attack [ http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/jul/27/pakistan-dead-bomb-shia-market-video ] in a market place in the town of Parachinar in the Kurram Tribal Agency, and Shia groups continue to protest the killing [ http://jafrianews.com/tag/shia-target-killing/ ] of Shias, notably in Karachi [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/88074/pakistan-shia-idps-fearful-of-being-targeted ].
The issue of minority rights in Pakistan is discussed often around the world these days.
By contrast, the Pakistani government hardly mentions it and pays little attention to the repression minority groups in the country are suffering. If anyone attempts to lobby or campaign on this issue, they are threatened and silenced like Shahbaz Bhatti.
Pakistani politicians and the establishment want the world to see the treatment of minorities through their eyes – set within the context of an Islamic state – while at the same time espousing democracy. Yet turning a blind eye to harsh realities suggests we are not interested in Pakistan’s future.
Pakistani minorities have few friends.
In government levels, they are practically voiceless and even their own representatives in parliament hardly speak out for them. Recently I had the chance to watch Dr Paul Bhatti during his visit to the UK. He disappointingly dodged the blasphemy issue and instead chose to concentrate on flaws in the education system, to the bewilderment of human rights campaigners present for his address in the UK Houses of Parliament.
I also had the chance recently to speak with several Pakistani MPs who seemed more determined to tow the party line and less willing to speak about the religious minorities issue simmering beneath the surface in communities across Pakistan.
The electoral system has few advantages for minorities and their own MPs are not capable of speaking up for them – or are under pressure from extremists not to.
Yet the isolation they experience within Pakistan is not reflected in the wider world. There are people in high places around the world who have taken note of the oppression and injustice, and are actively lobbying their own national governments to modify their relationships with Pakistan in a way that will force the Pakistani government to change its policy of inaction.
The USCIRF (US Commission on International Religious Freedom) recently published a fact sheet on religious communities in Pakistan, covering the last 18 months.
Christians, the second biggest religious community in Pakistan, were attacked 37 times in which 11 were killed and 36 injured. They were also attacked in targeted shootings that claimed three lives, and five Christian girls were raped.
Ahmadis witnessed 54 attacks, including one bombing, 26 incidents of targeted shootings in which 22 Ahmadis were killed and 39 injured.
According to the report, Pakistani Hindus suffered the most in terms of rape. In 18 months, the rapes of at least seven Hindu girls were reported. Not only this, but two Hindus died and four were injured in 16 attacks. Three Hindus were killed in targeted shootings.
The Pakistani Sikhs, a minority within a minority, were attacked three times with one fatality.
Smaller minority groups were attacked 16 times, resulting in 46 deaths and 195 injured victims.
These figures are horrendous and yet the Pakistani government looks the other way. Where else in the world is violence of this level tolerated against minority groups? Look at the developed nations and it becomes quickly obvious that inter-religious harmony and tolerance go hand in hand with national peace and prosperity.
The report paints a grim and challenging picture for the newly elected Pakistani government and instead of dismissing this as a serious priority, it should be making firm plans to break this cycle of useless violence.
On July 10, the Chair of the Subcommittee on Human rights and Foreign Affairs of EU, Barbara Lochbihler, said there are some severe human rights issues in Pakistan. “Thus, discrimination and violence against women and girls is still predominant, of which the tendency is increasing. Also the rights of minorities, particularly linked to freedom of religion and the blasphemy laws in place in the country, need to be addressed,” she said.
On May 22, Lord Eric Avebury organised a debate in the House of Lords over the issue of religious minorities and the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Lord Alton, Lord Soley, Lord Qurban and Lord Ahmad also took part in the debate. Lord Avebury has approached the United Nations over the targeted killing of Shia Muslims and the UN itself has raised concerns over these issues on several occasions. The USCIRF has repeatedly called upon the US government to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern“.
The GSP plus scheme allowing duty-free access to European markets is due to become operational in 2014 so the prospects for Pakistan’s economy are good. However, the implementation of the scheme is conditional on the improvement of the human rights situation in Pakistan. The Pakistan government should be thinking seriously about handing this remit to the Human Rights Ministry to ensure that the conditions for GSP are met.
The government also needs to be getting its own house in order. That means less rhetoric and more action.
Extremism is devouring Pakistan from within and extremists are trying to take us back to the dark ages, spreading hate and leaving their own fellow Pakistanis for dead every day. The urgent priority for Pakistan is to embrace pluralism, promote equality and harmony, and do everything it can to foster a culture of religious tolerance and religious freedom. It is either that or watches Pakistan’s slow death as a failed state.