January issue 2019
Days after state authorities carried out a countrywide crackdown against the radical Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the United States announced that it had put Pakistan on the list of countries violating religious freedom, resulting in diplomatic digs between the two.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced Pakistan’s designation among “countries of particular concern,” reiterating that the US government was now obliged to exert pressure on Pakistan against the prevailing freedom violations.
“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression.”
Islamabad rejected the move, with the foreign ministry dubbing it as being “politically motivated.” The Foreign Office said preserving the rights of minorities was a “cardinal principle” of the constitution. “Pakistan rejects the US State Department’s unilateral and politically motivated pronouncement,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari dubbed it “pure political blackmailing” and a US bid to coerce Pakistan into implementing Washington’s goals in Afghanistan.
The development coincides with Islamabad facilitating Washington’s talks with a delegation of the Afghan Taliban in the UAE, and in the immediate aftermath of the much publicised Twitter standoff between US President Donald Trump and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The US report for this year reiterated that religious minorities in Pakistan are attacked by radical groups and society at large. It also noted that “abusive enforcement of the country’s strict blasphemy laws result[s] in the suppression of rights for non-Muslims, Shias and Ahmedis.”
Other than Pompeo, the second official responsible for blacklisting Pakistan is the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback. Both he and Pompeo are from the Republican Party’s Christian wing. “We continue to watch very carefully what is happening with Aasia Bibi,” Brownback said while talking to the media.
The decision to acquit Aasia was met with massive outrage by Islamist groups, leading to countrywide protests spearheaded by the TLP. The group’s leaders threatened the Supreme Court judges who acquitted Aasia Bibi, urging their servants to kill them.
Pastor Simon Bashir of the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church lauded the Supreme Court’s verdict to acquit Aasia Bibi, but underscored that the Christian community is still living under fear of a backlash.
“There have been attacks against Christians over false allegations on many occasions in the past, and there is a fear that the community will be targeted for the verdict in favour of Aasia Bibi. This is especially true around major Christian festivals, when the threat increases,” he said. “Unfortunately, the state hasn’t done much to improve our security. The law enforcement officials just tell us to be careful, without offering much support.”
In August, 31 people were injured after an Ahmadi place of worship was torched in Faisalabad’s Ghaseet Pura area. This was the latest in a string of attacks on members of the Ahmadi community and their places of worship.
The Constitution officially excommunicates the community, and the Penal Code sanctions fines and imprisonment for Ahmadis for self-identifying as Muslims. With many Islamist groups and clergy deeming the Ahmadiyya ideology blasphemous, the community is under constant threat of violence.
“We are denied the rights that the Constitution guarantees – the freedom of religion, conscience and belief. The Constitution goes out of its way to contradict itself so as to deny us our rights,” says Amir Mehmood, who is in charge of the Ahmadiyya Media Cell.
“It’s almost as if the Ahmadiyya community is bearing the brunt of state action. While we see hate speech being delivered all over the country, the state interprets Ahmadi literature as being hate speech.”
In rural Sindh, Hindu girls are being coerced by local landlords, thugs and Islamist groups to ‘convert’ to Islam and get married to Muslims. Local Hindus complain of hindrances in registering these crimes, let alone prosecuting those guilty.
The Sindh Assembly had passed a bill against forced conversions in November 2016, but it was derailed following pressure from Islamist parties and groups before the governor could sign it into law. Threatening nationwide protests, these groups echoed the Council of Islamic Ideology’s view in calling the provision against the conversion of underaged individuals as being ‘anti-Islam’.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) State of Human Rights Report estimates that at least 1,000 non-Muslim girls – a large chunk of them being Hindu – are forcibly converted to Islam every year. While the Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013 bars any girl under the age of 18 from getting married, once a conversion certificate is produced the case is considered closed.
“We do have the Child Marriages Restraint Act but it should be better implemented across Sindh,” says Jai Prakash, Editor of the Sindhi newspaper Daily Ibrat. “In forced conversion cases there are many socioeconomic factors as well, which need to be addressed. And now that the bill against forced conversions has been shot down, many Hindu groups suggest that to ensure that no girl over the age of 18 is forcibly converted, the conversion should be ratified in front of a judge so that there is no coercion involved.”
While religious minorities are the more obvious targets, Pakistan continues to deny religious freedom to secular and humanist Muslims as well. Last year’s lynching of Mashal Khan was an example of blasphemy being used against progressive-minded Muslims.
Blasphemy has also been used as a pretext to target activists, journalists and bloggers. Last year, five bloggers had to flee the country after being held in captivity. Following their release, they claimed that they were abducted by security agencies.