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Pakistan’s Efforts Towards Religious Freedom Should Not Go Unnoticed

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Muhammad Abeer and Farah Samuel analyse the USCIRF report that has termed Pakistan a country of ‘particular concern’, based on religious extremism and intolerance in society. While the report address important issues, it fails to acknowledge the steps taken by Pakistan’s government and other relevant authorities in the recent past to ensure protection of minorities. 

 

Since Pakistan’s inception as a sovereign Muslim-majority state in 1947, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and many other non-Muslim communities have constituted the South Asian nation’s tiny minorities. Even though they form only 3.41% of the total population, under the constitution of Pakistan section 20 through 22, they have been given their due rights including religious freedom. However, over the span of 71 years, these minority groups have had to struggle for religious freedom. In recent years, they have also been the target of religiously-inspired violence, which has put them under the international spotlight.

Cases of blasphemy, forced conversion, extremism and discrimination have been recorded over the years. Despite these unfavourable circumstances, different governments have made significant efforts to improve the status of minorities. Violence against Pakistan’s minorities has been extensively highlighted by the international media and justifiably so, but the authorities in Pakistan have done little to ensure protection of minorities from faith-based violence.

The most recent report on the state of international religious freedom published by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) categorised Pakistan as one of the top ten ‘countries of particular concern (CPC)’. It also placed Pakistan as the only country on its Special Watch List, a new category created by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, in 2016. The report reiterates that Pakistan is a country of particular concern as it was categorised as such since 2002, based on the continued terrorist attacks, widespread religious extremism and intolerance in society. It calls out the government for its continued failure to protect the rights of religious minorities and has repeatedly noted ‘egregious religious freedom violations.’  The report also emphasises that the National Action Plan (NAP) formed in 2014 to counter terrorism and extremism, has failed to adequately address the issues of religious extremism and sectarian violence. Furthermore, the document raises the issue of ‘blasphemy’ and finds it rampant in the country with massive violations of the law. The issue of forced conversions and pressures on non-Muslim women to marry is also a topic addressed in the USCIRF report.

The report can be accessed here: https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2018USCIRFAR.pdf

Even though the aforementioned issues and case studies are true, the report has certainly not paid enough attention to the government’s initiatives to improve religious freedoms in the country.

The positive steps being taken to ensure the protection of the rights of minorities and peace-building have been ignored in the report. In the past few years, various NGOs in Pakistan including  the Pakistan Council of World Religions (PCWR) and Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT), have been arduously working to gather people from different faiths and bring them on a single platform to not only address their faith-based differences but also foster peace building and inter-faith harmony.

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The PCWR has been organising various debates seminars, workshops and conferences to educate people on religious harmony and tolerance among people of different faiths. In addition, ‘Faith Friends’ as they call themselves, have been actively participating in each other’s religious festivals to promote acceptance of each other’s faiths and prevent hostile attitudes wherever possible.

They are also engaging with youth as the ambassadors of peace and are working with the grassroots communities through these ambassadors to change the narrative on faith-based discrimination.

In the year 2018, the newly-elected government undertook a challenging decision of re-opening the ‘Kartarpur Corridor’ for the Sikh community from India to visit their holy places of worship and vice versa.

This was not only a positive gesture of the government towards India but was also received very well by the Sikh community in both the countries as an effort by the government to facilitate and ensure religious freedom. Another big win for the country was the rightful release of Asia Bibi, which the report mentions but does not consider a major example of progress. Asia Bibi had been in prison since 2009 on blasphemy charges. However, in 2018, the Supreme Court declared her innocent based on the lack of concrete evidence. Although the aftermath of this decision triggered a major backlash, the message was loud and clear that justice will be served to all irrespective of their faith.

Another positive effort by the government was recently seen at Christmas where senior government officials participated in the celebrations in the churches and government offices. These officials included former chief justice Saqib Nisar who attended a special Christmas ceremony at the Lahore High Court, to show solidarity and publicly declare his commitment to the freedom of religious minorities.

Moreover, the Christian students of Edwardes College, Peshawar were hosted at Aiwan-e-Sadar on December 21, 2018 where the young boys and girls sang Christmas carols and the President attended the ceremony and felicitated them with his best wishes on the occasion.

These efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean for minorities, nonetheless, they should not go unnoticed. Pakistan as a country is undergoing serious political challenges. However, in the past five years, the government has succeeded in controlling terrorist activities and extremism.

  • According to the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), there has been a 45% decline in terrorist activities in Pakistan since 2015.
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It is undeniable that there are multiple factors encouraging extremism in Pakistan, including the exploitation of the religious values, inadequate education and lack of inter-faith education, increased frustration due to growing poverty.

At the same time, it is important to recognize every little effort that the government is making to stabilise the country in every possible way.

Pakistan has recently regained its complete control over terrorism and extremism through Zarb-e-Azab. Religious extremism towards minorities, however, remains one of the foremost challenges facing the country. Blasphemy, forced conversions and forced marriages are the issues the country is faced with. But through a number of efforts made recently (such as Asia Bibi’s acquittal) the country is set on the path of progress towards protection of religious minorities.

It must be highlighted here that whenever the country is faced with such situations and some hard decisions need to be made, the government comes under huge pressure from both sides: the oppressed as well as the extremists. And such situations are not easy to deal with. The government always has to prioritise the national interest while ensuring that justice is being served. USCIRF must do a better job of acknowledging all the strides being made by the government for safeguarding the interests of the religious minorities in Pakistan. It will be substantive for USCIRF if a detailed research on the status of religious freedom is carried out before finalizing its annual report. This would ensure that it not only highlights the problems faced by the minorities but also acknowledges the government’s efforts in this regard. USCIRF would thus be able to present a more balanced view of what is taking place in Pakistan and offer well-informed recommendations on how the Pakistani state and civil society can enhance their efforts towards ensuring the protection of minority rights.

 

Muhammad Abeer is Chief Technology Officer and Farah Samuel, Manager Sustainability & Social Development. 

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