Human Rights Watch (HRW) has termed the Pakistani government’s exclusion of members of the Ahmadiyya religious movement from a commission on safeguarding the rights of minorities “absurd”, while sect leaders have warned it could lead to greater persecution of members resident in the South Asian country.
“The Ahmadis are among the most persecuted communities in Pakistan and to exclude them from a minority rights commission is absurd,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, a US-based rights group, in a statement on Friday.
“Keeping Ahmadis off the commission shows the extent to which the community faces discrimination every day.”
Earlier this week, the Pakistani government established the National Commission on Minorities (NCM), an interfaith body aimed at increasing religious tolerance and addressing issues of persecution in the country of 220 million people.
Pakistan is home to more than half a million Ahmadis, who have been declared “non-Muslim” under Pakistan’s constitution since 1974 for their belief in the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, being a subordinate prophet to Islam’s final prophet, Muhammad.
Members of the sect believe they are Muslim, and, as such, a community spokesperson told Al Jazeera they did not wish to be a part of the commission, but that dragging them into the argument had increased threats of violence.
“They never approached us or contacted us about this,” said Saleemuddin, the spokesperson.
“We never requested this – our principled stand is the same as before and we will not join such a commission.”
Saleemuddin said debate over the issue – an emotive subject for many in religiously conservative Pakistan – had resulted in greater threats to the Ahmadi community.
“What it does is put the community more in danger,” he said.
“The campaign that has been launched after that, no one has spoken to the community and we have become even more vulnerable.”
‘They do not fall in the definition of minorities’
Members of the Ahmadiyya sect were initially part of the government’s plans for the commission, but after the religious affairs ministry objected on April 15, their representation was removed.
On May 5, when announcing the official formation of the commission, Information Minister Shibli Faraz said Ahmadis were to be excluded because “they do not fall in the definition of minorities”.
The back-and-forth on the issue prompted the religious affairs minister, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, to accuse Ahmadis of not recognising the constitution, a charge community spokesperson Saleemuddin denied.
“The government’s position is clear that it can only include a group or party in the country’s constitutional bodies after that group recognises the constitution,” Qadri said.
“Declaring your reservations or objections to a certain constitutional amendment, does that make you a traitor?” said Saleemuddin.
“The constitution gives me a right to believe myself to be whatever I am. If you have declared us non-Muslim for the purposes of law and constitution, fine, but I have the right to believe what I am myself.”
Ahmadis routinely face widespread discrimination in Pakistan, with members of the sect denied service at shops or businesses if they identify themselves.
Specific provisions of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws make it illegal for them to refer to themselves as Muslims, or to their places of worship and call to prayer by the equivalent Islamic terms. The country has also seen numerous targeted attacks against members of the community.
Saleemuddin warned that fiery debate over the issue on nationally aired television news channels risked inflaming tensions further.
“Day by day, life is becoming even more difficult for us,” he said.
“We are so restricted socially, and anyone who is branded an Ahmadi it becomes impossible for them to live [in that area] … if they need to do a business, go for groceries, or anything.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.