Minority rights in Pakistan became a heated topic of discussion making headlines all year round
Anmol Ahmed December 31, 2022
Bishop Naeem Esa said there were 1.5 million Hindus and 0.5 million Christians in south Punjab. PHOTO: FILE
In November, Washington had grouped Pakistan along with 11 other countries, including China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, as being states that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom”.
“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” Blinken said in the statement.
“The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”
He added that Washington would welcome the opportunity to meet with all governments to outline concrete steps for removal from the lists.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had later rejected the US’ listing of his country as a state of “particular concern” over religious freedoms, wondering why India escaped the list.
However, the US was not alone to raise concerns over human rights violations, particularly those pertaining to the protection of minorities in the country.
In September, members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) had called on the Pakistan government to undertake timely reforms and legislative changes on human rights issues and translate them into concrete improvements, especially the prevention of any misuse of blasphemy laws.
Minority rights in Pakistan became a heated topic of discussion making headlines all year round. Here is a list of the biggest stories of the year pertaining to religious minorities in Pakistan:
Mob lynching in Khanewal
The year had begun under the shadow of the shocking news of a Sri Lankan national being brutally lynched and his body set on fire by a mob in Sialkot. The sickening incident outraged the nation as the civil and military leaders denounced it as “horrific” “shameful” and “extra-judicial vigilantism”.
However, yet another similar incident was reported only a month later as a mob in Punjab’s Khanewal district tortured and killed a man accused of burning pages of the Holy Quran.
As per details, the local police, in order to protect themselves, allegedly allowed the accused to leave the police station in Mian Chunnu where the mob was present.
The victim was dragged to a nearby place, tortured and killed whereas the police allegedly played the role of silent spectator.
Targeted attacks and killings
Pastor William Siraj was shot dead by unidentified motorcyclists while his friend Patrick was injured in the same incident in Peshawar on January 30, sparking protests from the city’s religious minority.
The incident, which took place in the Chamkani Ring Road area, had also sparked fears of targeted killings and terrorism resurging in the provincial capital. It is worth noting here that previously, police personnel as well as some members of religious minorities have been targeted in the city.
In a similar incident in May, a seminary student stabbed Abdul Salam, 33, a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Okara district, a community activist told Reuters.
Meanwhile, another member of the community had been stabbed and killed in the eastern town of Rabwah – officially known as Chenab Nagar – allegedly for refusing to chant religious slogans, a community activist and police had said.
In an unprecedented incident, three women madrassa teachers in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa had also allegedly murdered their colleague on the pretext that she committed blasphemy.
‘Violence over blasphemy allegations un-Islamic’
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) in February declared that violence against a person on allegations of blasphemy was contrary to Shariah, Constitution, and humanity.
The council suggested the constitution of a national commission that would forward recommendations to prevent such incidents.
Addressing a news conference after chairing the CII session, Dr Qibla Ayaz condemned the incidents of taking the law into their own hands in the wake of blasphemy.
Reading out a statement, issued after the meeting, Dr Ayaz said culprits involved in Sialkot and Khanewal incidents should be brought to justice at the earliest, saying it would help build the confidence of the people in law enforcement agencies and the judicial system.
Previously, after holding a meeting with the church leadership, the government had expressed a determination to punish all those who make false allegations of blasphemy to curb the misuse of the sensitive laws.
Landmark judgment on blasphemy
In August, a division bench of the apex court comprising Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah heard the post-arrest bail request of Salamat Mansha Masih who was employed as a sweeper with the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) and had been accused of committing blasphemy.
“Unfortunately, such cases receive wide publicity which has an adverse effect and may also jeopardize a fair trial,” stated Justice Qazi Faez Isa in a nine-page detailed judgment.
“Irresponsible and sensational broadcasts and publications repeat what allegedly the accused had said or done; those repeating this may themselves be committing the same offense,” said the judgment, expressing reservations over the “serious” nature of “offenses relating to religion”.
“A section 295-C offense prescribes only punishment by death,” it observed and furthered that “therefore, utmost care must be exercised by all concerned that no injustice in the administration of justice takes place”.
The court also remarked that Islamic jurisprudence considers “offences relating to religion to be offences against God” and observed that “to establish the guilt of an accused in a hadd offence” the highest form of evidence is required “and any doubt exonerates the accused”.
The judgment said that the prosecution’s evidence against the petitioner (accused) comprises the statements of four friends. “We have examined their testimony which commences by stating that the petitioner’s co-accused produced the Zindagi Ka Pani book and that, both accused intentionally started preaching Christianity”.
Preaching Christianity, however, “is not a crime nor can it be made into one because of the fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate religion,” said the court.
The landmark judgment had been preceded by another similar case where the top court had noted that bigoted behaviour towards minorities painted the entire nation in poor colour, labelling people of Pakistan as intolerant, dogmatic and rigid as it overturned a Lahore High Court order, which had endorsed the charges of blasphemy against members of the Ahmadiyya community on the allegation that they had styled their place of worship as a mosque and displayed Islamic symbols on its inner walls.
“To deprive a non-Muslim (minority) of our country from holding his religious beliefs, to obstruct him from professing and practicing his religion within the four walls of his place of worship is against the grain of our democratic Constitution and repugnant to the spirit and character of our Islamic Republic,” read the nine-page judgment, authored by Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, who was heading a division bench hearing a petition against the offence of blasphemy on Ahmadi individuals.
Kidnappings and forced conversions
In July, a Hindu girl had allegedly been abducted and converted to Islam in Kazi Ahmed, the home district of former president Asif Ali Zardari.
Family, relatives, and community members had also staged a protest outside Zardari House and demanded to recover their girl.
Kareena, 16, was abducted on July 6. “She was converted on the same day and was married to a Muslim man Khaliquz Zamaan,” said Lajpat, a relative of the girl. Speaking to The Express Tribune, he had said that the FIR was registered against the kidnapper but police did not take any action.
Earlier in March, a young girl from the Hindu community was shot dead in Sukkur, drawing widespread condemnation from several quarters of the country. Pooja Kumari, 18, was targeted at her home near the Chhuahra Mandi area over her refusal to marry the accused. Station House Officer Bashir Jagirani told the media that the assailant, later identified as Wahid Bux Lashari and two of his aides, barged into Kumari’s house and opened fire on her.
The event once again triggered debate over the slow progress in the law-making process to prevent forced conversions.
Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has since directed Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to enact legislation to stop forced conversion and forced marriages in Sindh.
CM Murad in the telephonic conversation with Chairman Bilawal Bhutto informed him about the establishment of a committee to create consensus among political parties over the issue of forced conversion and forced marriages.
On this occasion, Bilawal said that Sindh is already leading in the legislation against early marriage. “I hope that efforts to legislate on forced marriages will also be successful.”
On the other hand, while presiding over the emergency meeting regarding forced marriages, CM Murad Ali Shah said that the Sindh government is committed against forced religious conversion and to protecting the rights of all minorities. Shah said that the Sindh government will form a committee to create a consensus on the forced conversion law, which is among their priorities. The CM hoped that a consensus would be reached on the issue through discussion and deliberation.
Vandalisation of Hindu temple
In yet another incident of vandalism against places of worship of the Hindu community in Pakistan, the statues of deities at Shri Mari Maata in Karachi’s Korangi area came under attack in June.
The Shri Mari Maata Mandir is located in “J” area within the limits of Korangi police station. After getting information, the police reached the area and inspected the temple, and inquired about the incident.
The incident caused panic and fear among the Hindu community living in Karachi, particularly in the Korangi area where police were deployed to avoid any untoward incident.
Sanjeev, a Hindu resident of the area, had told The Express Tribune that six to eight individuals on motorcycles came into the area and attacked the temple. “We don’t know who has attacked and why,” he had said, adding that the police were approached to lodge the case.
“Five to six unknown suspects entered the temple and escaped after vandalising it,” Korangi SHO Farooq Sanjrani confirmed. He added that the case was being registered against the unknown suspects who attacked the temple.Temples belonging to the minority Hindu population in Pakistan are often the target of mob violence.
Pakistan’s First Hindu Woman Police Officer
Pakistan’s first Hindu woman Manisha Ropeta joined Sindh police as Deputy Superintendent of Police – one of the top officials in the force in July.
Ropeta cleared the competitive examination of the Sindh Public Service Commission in April 2021. Before qualifying for the tough competition, she had completed her MA in English from Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur and a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center.
“Most girls prefer or are forced by their families to become doctors. It is a do-or-die-like situation for them,” Ropeta told The Express Tribune. “I wanted to break this myth of a women-friendly profession,” she added.
Ropeta was posted as an under-training officer in one of the port city’s oldest areas – Lyari. “These are early days of my career, and I am being trained to handle issues happening in society,” she had said.
Tensions in Hyderabad
An alleged incident of desecration of the Holy Quran sparked unrest in Saddar area of Hyderabad in August. Thousands of people had gathered in the area and surrounded the building where the incident allegedly took place.
Angry mobs had tried to break in, however, police controlled the situation by preventing them from harming the minority community members.
Later, a contingent of Rangers also reached the scene and dispersed the crowd. The police had arrested a sanitary worker, Ashok Kumar, in connection with the incident and later named him in an FIR under sections 295-B and 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code on the complaint of Bilal Abbassi, a local shopkeeper.
Pilgrims and religious tourism
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh pilgrims were granted visas all year-round to visit Pakistan to complete their religious rituals.
In November, Pakistan issued at least 2,942 visas to Sikh pilgrims from India to attend the birth celebrations of Baba Guru Nanak.
Previously, in June, on the occasion of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s death anniversary, the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi issued 495 visas to Sikh pilgrims from India to attend the annual anniversary.
Similarly, the High Commission had issued 100 visas to India’s Hindu pilgrims for visiting their religious sites in the country to participate in the 314th birth anniversary celebrations of Shiv Avtari Satguru Sant Shadaram Sahib, at historic Shadani Darbar in Hayat Pitafi, a small town of district Ghotki.
Similarly, Pakistan issued 96 visas to a group of Indian Hindu pilgrims for their visit to the sacred Shree Katas Raj Temples in Chakwal district of Punjab, allowing the devotees to visit the prominent temples, also known as Qila Katas.
Desecration of Ahmadi place of worship
In early December, reports of the alleged demolition of minarets of an Ahmadi place of worship in Gujranwala also surfaced.
Media reports, quoting representatives of the Ahmadi community, said that local police demolished the minarets after being pressured by some religious outfits.
As per the report, the Gujranwala administration held a meeting with the representatives of the Ahmadi community to sort out the matter. However, they were told there was “no alternative” but to remove the minarets as “passions were running high in the city and things might get out of control”.
On December 25, the Christian community celebrated their biggest festival of Christmas with religious zeal and fervour.
The Christian neighbourhoods were bustling with activity amid special Christmas events, family gatherings and entertainments like swings and musical events. People decorated their homes with Christmas trees, stars and electric lamps. In various Christmas celebrations, Christmas cakes were cut and Santa Claus distributed gifts among the children.
Extraordinary arrangements had also been made for security and other administrative matters in connection with the Quaid-e-Azam Day and the Christmas festival in Bhakkar.
Fourteen Christmas bazaars were set up selling clothes, artificial jewelry and decorative toys in addition to food items of daily use at cheaper rates.
New Church and new beginnings
Pakistan ends the year with Sindh Minister for Minorities Affairs Giyan Chand Essarani inaugurating Gospel Pentecostal Church in Korangi Industrial area completed under the Minorities Affairs Department.
The scheme was recommended by PPP MPA Anthony Naveed. The executive engineer briefed the minister about the completion tenure of the church in detail. Talking on the occasion, the minister said that PPP believes in serving the people without discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and creed.