March Issue 2015
On July 27, 2014 a clash took place when a Gujranwala resident, Saqib, an Ahmadi, allegedly shared a blasphemous picture with another resident, Ejaz, on Facebook.
Ejaz along with Zakariya, the son of Imam Jama Masjid Sadiqia, Qari Muhammad Hakim and others gathered outside Saqib’s house to protest.
Unable to locate him at home, the angry mob attempted to raid a doctor’s house in search of Saqib. Then, according to Ejaz, some people who entered the premises, lit the house on fire.
Bashira Bibi, 30, and two minors including eight-month-old Hira and five-year-old Kainat, died of suffocation, while nine others, including a woman and two minors, were injured.
Later, in November 2014, in a vigilante attack also based on alleged blasphemy, a young Christian couple in Pakistan was beaten by a mob and then incinerated by being thrown into a brick kiln.
Local residents said that the couple, Sajjad and his pregnant wife, Saima “Shama” Massih, were severely injured during the thrashing by the crowd, but were still alive when they were shoved into the kiln and burned to death. And all this in full view of their three minor children.
Reports from the area suggest that the allegations of blasphemy against the couple began to circulate after the husband, Sajjad Massih, had a financial dispute with his employers.
The victims of such blasphemy-related vigilante attacks often belong to Pakistan’s minority communities – including Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis – although members of the mainstream Muslim majority have also been targeted.
In recent years, Pakistan has been convulsed by violence against minorities. In 2014 alone, 11 Ahmadis were killed in cold blood and more than 210 people were killed in sectarian attacks. The number of sectarian deaths in 2015 had already reached 79 until February 1 according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan notes that religious minorities in Pakistan continue to be the victims of targeted terrorist attacks from extremist groups. Moreover, HRCP notes that religious minorities face widespread hurdles to access political and social rights, while nothing has been done to remove discrimination against non-Muslim citizens in the law and to address abuse of the Blasphemy Law.
For Pakistan’s religious minorities living abroad, their relationship with Pakistan can be very different from others. For so many, violence and persecution have pushed them out of Pakistan over the span of several decades. Whether it is to pursue better opportunities for their families or for their safety, they have settled abroad. However, despite the time that has passed and the distance, they are still directly impacted by events in Pakistan.
Among these immigrants, it is not uncommon to hear about the loss of a brother, a father, a relative or a friend due to the upsurge in terrorist violence in the past few years. Memories are shared of growing up in an entirely different Pakistan, a relatively safe and secure Pakistan, and despite the ongoing persecution against their community members, they describe an inextricable connection to the country of their childhood. Their children also express a keen interest in their parents’ homeland: they wish to understand their roots.
In Canada, protests and vigils have been held by members of these communities to condemn terrorist acts and to remember the victims.
Muhammad Baqir Ali of Hazara origin came to Canada in the early 2000s from Quetta, Balochistan. He remembers living in Pakistan during a time when there were no issues between his Shia and Sunni friends, both as a child in Quetta and then as a student at the National College of Arts in Lahore during the early 1990s.
“I feel very sad at how this has happened,” he says.
Ali attends many vigils and protests in the Toronto area where he also takes photographs. Most recently, he attended a vigil in front of the Pakistani Consulate in Toronto after the killing of students at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
He says that within the Hazara community in Canada almost everyone has experienced the death of someone they knew in Pakistan, whether it be a member of their immediate family, a relative or a friend, who has been killed in a bomb blast or target killing.
“We live here, but our minds are there — we constantly worry, but are particularly anxious during Muharram and Eid.”
Peter Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minority Affairs who was killed in March 2011 in an attack claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban, has his brother’s picture framed on the wall behind him as he speaks about the Pakistani Christian community’s contribution and sacrifice for Pakistan. He is deeply concerned about the persecution of religious minorities.
Having moved to Canada in the late 1990s, Bhatti is currently Chairman of the International Christian Voice in Canada. The organisation advocates for human and religious rights in Pakistan.
Over the years, Pakistan’s Christian community in Canada has grown to several thousand. Recently, Rimsha Masih, who was arrested on blasphemy charges in 2012, was granted asylum in Canada.
“Despite all the persecution, we are still loyal to Pakistan and believe that everyone should be treated equally,” Bhatti says.
And despite the fate that befell his brother, he remains hopeful. He believes that it is not too late to develop a secular Pakistan as Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned at the creation of Pakistan. He also recalls the Pakistan of the 1970s. “Although I did face discrimination in school and in the workplace, my friends and I celebrated Christmas, Eid, Ramzan and Easter together. We never felt like we were different — we were all just Pakistani,” he says.
Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers have yet to be brought to justice. “My brother came to the world to help create a prosperous and free Pakistan with equality for all communities. He gave his life for this cause and we should stand together to continue his legacy and his vision,” says his brother.
In June 2014, Dr Mehdi Ali Qamar’s funeral took place in the city of Vaughan in Canada. Dr Mehdi was a Canadian citizen of Ahmadi faith who lived in the United States. He travelled to Pakistan to volunteer at a hospital last spring, where he was shot to death by a man on his motorcycle, with his wife and two-year-old son helpless onlookers. His funeral was attended by thousands of people, including Canadian politicians.
Shazia Saeed came to Canada from Pakistan in the 1980s as a teenager. Her father worked for the government, but after the passing of the 1974 law that declared Ahmadis non-Muslims, he and many others of that denomination had to leave their jobs due to increasing discrimination.
Referring to the May 2010 attacks on a mosque in Lahore, Pakistan where 94 people of Ahmadi faith were killed and 124 injured, a moist-eyed Shazia says, “I love my culture, I love my country — it is where I belonged, but not anymore. I want my children to learn about their roots, visit my homeland, but how can I take them there? It hurts me. I hope I can go back one day.”
The first and second generations of Canadian-born immigrants describe their connection to Pakistan as less strong than that of the older generation. Of Ahmadi faith, Lubna Malik, who was born in Canada and is in her thirties, says that there is a lot of nostalgia from the older generation for Pakistan. “My dad still dreams of retiring there,” she says smiling. As for her, she says she would like to connect more with Pakistan’s culture, food and clothes, and perhaps travel through the land. “It is such a beautiful country,” she says, speaking about the scenic places in Pakistan.
But like the changing attitudes across Pakistan, so too is the landscape in flux. Ongoing terrorism attacks have decimated flourishing areas along with communities. Today, no one anywhere is safe, and Pakistan’s religious minorities are the most vulnerable. No surprises then that the Pakistani diaspora continues.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.