Religious Minorities in ‘Naya Pakistan’
“I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. Our minorities are equal citizens of this country,” declared Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on February 26, 2020.
The current ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, under the leadership of Khan, vowed in their 2018 election manifesto that “PTI will protect the civil, social and religious rights of minorities; their places of worship, property and institutions as laid down in the Constitution.” Among the list of promises for a “Naya Pakistan,” there were two important vows that still require the government’s attention: ensuring equal justice and protecting minorities from violence, hate speech, and discrimination.
Throughout 2019, Pakistan was mostly preoccupied with a constitutional crisis and civil-military relations. However, behind the scenes, the state of religious freedom remained under constant threat. Religious minorities continued to face discrimination and persecution, such as misuse of the anti-blasphemy law, forced conversions of non-Muslims girls, and enforced disappearances. Before forming the government, Khan promised, in particular, the protection of minorities and equal justice to every citizen regardless of one’s faith and ethnicity. By listing the anti-minority incidents that have taken place since August 2018, when the PTI came into power, this article seeks to remind the government of what it has promised to its voters — specifically members of religious minorities.
This writeup provides a 17-month review of the PTI’s performance specifically focusing on the state of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). It covers events that took place from August 18, 2018 through February 29, 2020.
Pakistan is culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. Muslims constitute 96.28 percent of the country’s population, whereas Christians are 1.59 percent and Hindus 1.60 percent. Among Muslims, minority sects include Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and Bohris. Shias make up a sizeable proportion of the Muslim population, roughly 15 to 20 percent; the Ahmadiyya community constitutes just 0.22 percent. However, this figure could easily be contested as many followers of the Ahmadiyya faith do not publicly identify themselves as Ahmadis due to fear of persecution.
The data in this report heavily relies on online news sites, reports, and social media coverage and covers only those incidents that were reported in the media. The selection of relevant groups was based those who are constitutionally declared “minorities,” with one exception: though Shias are not constitutionally a minority, the community has been witnessing what the former chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, termed a violence “tantamount to wiping out an entire generation.” Only incidents explicitly linked to the targeted party’s faith were included. Some incidents where members of minorities were attacked but the motive of the attack wasn’t clear, therefore, are not included in this report.
The State of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities
There were some positive developments in this reporting period. Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent almost a decade in prison under false blasphemy charges, was finally acquitted and managed to leave the country. In response to Aasia’s acquittal in October 2018, there were violent protests in November 2018 led by Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a group of hardliners under the leadership of Khadim Rizvi. The authorities stood firm and arrested TLP leadership and workers for destabilizing Pakistan’s law and order situation.
In early 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Christians would be able to register their marriages with an official marriage certificate.
In another development, Pakistan opened the Kartarpur Corridor, allowing Sikh pilgrims from around the world to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism.
Similarly, a judge nullified the “free-will” marriage of a Hindu girl, Mehik Kumari, and confirmed that she was underage when she “embraced” Islam and married a Muslim man. Activists had argued Kumari was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam.
While many commended the government’s strong stance on Aasia Bibi, it was disappointing to witness that the government had to backtrack from its decision to appoint one of the country’s leading economists, Atif Mian, as an economic adviser to prime minister. The PTI caved to pressure from hardliners invoking Mian’s faith, as he belongs to the Ahmadiyya community, but it would be unfair to blame hardliners only for this incident. In fact, the outrage against Atif Mian was the natural corollary of the hate speech used against the Ahmadiyya community by some mainstream parties, including the PTI, during the 2018 general election campaign. Later, a PTI federal minister, Azam Swati, said on a TV show that he and Khan both sent a “curse” to the Ahmadiyya community. Neither the PTI nor the prime minister have disassociated from or clarified their position on Swati’s statement.
According to the Center for Research and Security Studies’ “Annual Security Report 2019,” in that year alone 28 Shias and two Ahmadis were killed in targeted attacks due to their faith. Another 57 Shias and one Christian were injured in 2019. According to this author’s research, there have been at least five attacks on Ahmadiyya places of worship since August 2018, two at Hindu temples, and one at a Christian church. There have also been 13 blasphemy cases filed against Ahmadis, nine against Christians, two against Hindus, and one against a Shia in the same time period.
Shias have continued to suffer violent attacks in different parts of Pakistan. In particular, the Shia Hazara community, mainly based in Quetta, Balochistan, was frequently targeted by militants. In April 2019, at least 24 Shia Hazaras were killed in a suicide attack in a vegetable market in Quetta. According to one report, at least 509 Shia Hazaras have been killed since 2012.
Shias are also the first religious minority to witness the enforced disappearances of their community members. The issue of enforced disappearance, which has spread all over Pakistan, is not a new phenomenon. Political activists, mainly from the Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Muhajir ethnic groups, have been victims of abduction, but now for the first time members of a religious minority are being subjected to this form of violence. According to one report, an estimated 144 of Shias are missing across Pakistan. The abducted Shias are accused of “fighting for Iran in Syria and Iraq.” However, the authorities have failed to produce any evidence in courts.
Other forms of discrimination against Shias are also rampant. In early December, a group of hardliners held a demonstration in Charsadda, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, to demand the removal of Bacha Khan University’s vice chancellor, Saqlain Naqvi, invoking his Shia identity. In another incident in the same month, a Shia boy died in a road accident in Kharian, a city located in Gujrat district, Punjab. A cleric belonging to the Sunni sect refused to officiate his funeral just because of the Shia identity of the deceased.
Violence and discrimination against the Christian community continued in 2019 in the shape of casualties, harassment, and blasphemy cases. Pakistan Christian Post reported that in May 2019, a 35-year-old Christian rickshaw driver, Sagheer Masih, was mugged and forced to drink poison. He later died. In another incident, a mob attacked a local church in Sheikhupura, Punjab, during prayer services.
In Bahawalnagar, Punjab, a 19-year-old boy named Sunny Waqas was accused of committing blasphemy and possessing “blasphemous” material about the Prophet Muhammad. In June 2019 he was booked for violating the blasphemy law (formally, article 295‑C of the Pakistani Penal Code). However, his family claimed that Waqas had had a quarrel with Muslim friends during a cricket match. Nouman Asghar Masif, who happens to be Sunny Waqas’ cousin, was also booked under 295‑C in August 2019 in Bahawalpur for showing “blasphemous” pictures to his friend on his phone.
In March 2019, a 42-year-old Christian, Stephen Masih, was booked for making “derogatory” remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. His nephew later revealed that Stephen has been mentally disabled since birth and insists he was wrongly accused.
Saleem Masih, a resident of Shanti Nagar, Punjab, was booked under false blasphemy charges on June 14, 2019. According to a news report, a group of people pushed the blasphemy accusation as an excuse to seize land that belonged to Masih. Not just Masih, his family was being accused of the blasphemy charges.
On February 25, 2020, a 22-year-old Christian laborer, Saleem Masih, was beaten and tortured in Chunian, Kasur District, Punjab, for “polluting” a tube-well. Masih died on February 28 in a hospital in Lahore. According to Pakistan Today, after finishing his work, Masih was bathing in a tube-well when some local Muslims dragged him out and started beating him with an iron rod. The local police stood by as spectators when Masih was being abused and cursed for being “filthy” and “polluting” the tube-well.
The Ahmadiyya community has remained under constant attack, subjected to violence and discrimination. The authorities were unable to stop the rising hatred against the community even on digital platforms. On July 19 2019, an anti-Ahmadiyya hashtag (#قادیانی_دنیاکابدترین_کافر or “Qadiani [a derogatory word for Ahmadis] is the worst infidel in the world”) was trending on Twitter.
On December 12, an assistant commissioner, Zeenat Hussain, was forced to apologize for her comments on the equal right of the religious minorities after she said to a group of students that the rights of the Ahmadiyya community, as citizens, should be respected. Later, a group of protesters, mainly from Jamat-e-Islami, marched toward the assistant commissioner office and asked her to explain her position on the Ahmadiyya community. Hussain not only apologized, but she was also forced to call Ahmadis “kafir” (infidel).
Ahmadiyya places of worships remained under attack. On February 6, 2020, a group of people stormed and forcibly occupied a 100-year-old Ahmadiyya mosque in Kasur, Punjab. Succumbing to pressure, the local authorities deprived Ahmadis and handed the mosque over to hardliners. In May 2018, another 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque was attacked and damaged in Sialkot.
Hindus and Sikhs
The violence and discrimination against Pakistan’s Hindu community continued under the PTI government. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 1,000 young Hindu and Christian women who are forced to change their religion each year. According to one statistic provided by a local Hindu activist, 50 Hindu girls have been forcibly converted to Islam in Sindh province alone since early 2019. One of the issues the activist highlighted is the absence of data on forced conversions. “This is the main issue. No [web]sites and people are working on statistics,” the activist, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
The Sikh community has also raised the issue of forced conversions in Punjab. In August 2019, 19-year-old Jagjit Kaur was forcibly converted to Islam. After the intervention of the Punjab government, the Sikh girl was returned home in September 2019.
In addition, accusations of blasphemy followed by an attack on places of worship are becoming a reoccurring trend. A large mob stormed and vandalized a Hindu temple in Sindh’s city of Ghotki over an accusation that a Hindu principal committed blasphemy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan emerged as a populist leader who claimed to be better than other politicians. But when it comes to religious freedom, although there were some positive developments mentioned above, the figures indicate that the state of minorities hasn’t changed much. The promises Khan made about a just state in which minorities will be protected have been ignored by him and his party. Based on the collected provisional data, since August 2018, at least 31 members of minorities have been killed and 58 injured in targeted attacks. There have also been 25 blasphemy related cases filed against minorities and at least seven attacks on their places of worship.
The political economy of violence against religious minorities is a peculiar phenomenon that might not make sense without analyzing the role of the military. The Pakistan military has a long history of supporting extremist groups, using them as proxies both externally and internally. More importantly, Pakistan is a hybrid regime, sometimes described as hybrid-martial law, where the military holds real power and runs the country through the parliament by installing or selecting a civilian leadership. Therefore, blaming or holding a civilian government accountable serves little purpose when they have very limited powers.
But this unequal power distribution does not mean civilians cannot be criticized for their role in perpetrating the discrimination. The recent reinstatement of Fayyaz-ul-Hasan Chohan in Punjab’s government raises the question of the PTI’s seriousness in dealing hate speech within its own party. Chohan made derogatory remarks against Hindus, calling them “urine drinker,” for which he later apologised. After a few months of suspension, he is back and has taken control of the Information Ministry. Similarly, people like Swati, who openly curse Ahmadis, are considered to be part of the PTI’s core committee. This leaves minorities to wonder: if Khan is unable or unwilling to discipline his own party, how could he protect minorities from other forces?
Jaffer A. Mirza is a researcher and columnist. He tweets at @jafferamirza.