Aljazeera America: by Zehra Abid —
Bullet holes are seen at the Garhi Shahu mosque, where members of the persecuted Ahmadiyya community pray during Friday prayers, on July 16, 2010 in Lahore, Pakistan. The mosque was attacked that May.
Pakistan’s story began with a parting — partition from India — and now, for a growing number of people, it is ending with another parting. Negombo, a beach town 24 miles from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is refuge for hundreds of Ahmadi Muslims fleeing persecution in Pakistan.
According to the Colombo office of the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, there was a nearly 780 percent increase in the number of Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka from 2012, when 152 people sought asylum, to 2013, when this number jumped to 1,338. While most of them are Ahmadis, the number also includes Pakistani Christians and Shia Muslims, who have also faced increasing persecution in Pakistan over the years.
However, with Sri Lanka becoming less accessible following the suspension last year of on-arrival visa facilities, fewer people have sought shelter here recently. In 2014, only 239 new asylum seekers were registered.
Members of the Ahmadiyya community can be found all over the world. In Pakistan, their population ranges from 600,000 to 700,000, according to Ahmadi leaders in that country (there has been no census there since 1998). They are among a growing number of minorities — people belonging to small sects within Islam and non-Muslims — leaving Pakistan against the backdrop of increasing religious intolerance and attacks on marginal groups in recent years.
Ahmadis have a good case for asylum because there is legalized, state-sanctioned persecution against them in Pakistan.
human rights lawyer in Pakistan
In the lottery of birth, Negombo’s newest residents have been terrible losers. There is a law against Ahmadis practicing their religion in Pakistan, where they were declared non-Muslims under a constitutional amendmentmore than 40 years ago, following months of rioting. Decades later, the legislation has divided both homes and families and sent many into exile. The worst incident in recent times occurred in May 2010 in Lahore when two Ahmadi mosques were attacked, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people.
“Ahmadis have a good case for asylum because there is legalized, state-sanctioned persecution against them in Pakistan,” says Asad Jamal, a human-rights lawyer in Pakistan. “There is both formal and informal discrimination against the group, from criminal cases being instituted against Ahmadis for practicing their belief system, being informally barred against being given jobs in state institutions, to their graveyards being desecrated … Students, too, are forced to hide their identity. How can people live in such a situation?”
The Ahmadi mosque in Negombo is a cradle for those seeking asylum. There is a mix of ages, backgrounds and incomes here, but the asylum seekers are united by their loss. Almost everyone has lost a family member, a friend, an acquaintance. Some have lost their homes to looting or arson. At the mosque, they come to socialize, take the free classes that are offered and worship with a freedom that they did not have in Pakistan.
Twenty-four-year-old Amna comes here too. Amna, whose name has been changed because of death threats she has received, fled Pakistan two years ago after facing allegations of blasphemy in her final semester of college. Immediately after, she was expelled. Amna would have graduated in 2012, but all she has to show for her efforts now is a 3.27 GPA.
Her academic life came to an abrupt end when she found hate literature attacking Ahmadis posted outside her hostel door. Posters criticizing the religious sect had been placed all over her school’s campus for months, and she was tired of seeing them, she says, so she tore up the ones outside the hostel door. A hostel guard saw her and claimed she had torn up Quranic verses and Prophet Muhammad’s sayings (also known as the Hadith). He accused her of blasphemy, a serious charge that can result in a death penalty in Pakistan. Amna challenged his account, but nobody listened to her, she says. Soon, posters began showing up around campus insisting that she be expelled, and on the college’s Facebook page, students demanded that she be killed. The posts, which have since been removed, called for shooting her immediately and criticized other students for having been “too late” in dealing with the incident.
“The entire hostel was standing outside my room and calling me an infidel,” Amna says. “The administration said they would collect all the girls in the common room and told me to apologize, but I said I haven’t done anything wrong. They were all coming after me, the college gates were shut, I couldn’t leave. Then a hostel warden helped me escape from the rear gate.” The student was in hiding for weeks, with help from Ahmadi leaders, before moving back to her home in Rabwah, the religious headquarters of the community in Pakistan.
“I was the only Ahmadi in my class and people would keep saying things about Ahmadis being non-Muslims. I was tired of it.” Amna is visibly angry, her eyes fierce. “I only had one semester left. I asked my teachers whether I could take the exams from home, but they would not even let me do that.”