Construction of the first Hindu temple in the Pakistani capital Islamabad began on Tuesday, a long-standing demand by the minority community put in action under the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The site of the Shri Krishna Mandir (temple) complex, will include a crematorium, accommodation for visitors, a community hall and a parking space spread across an area of 4 kanals (2,023sq metres).
The plan was approved in 2017 under former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, but construction had been delayed until this year by administrative hurdles.
“This is very big step for the Hindu community and Pakistan,” Pritam Das, an Islamabad resident and real-estate professional, told Al Jazeera.
Das said Pakistani Hindus across the country, and especially in Islamabad, were grateful to Prime Minister Khan and his government for facilitating the construction of the temple and other related facilities, which he said was much needed considering the steady growth of the capital’s Hindu population.
“This will send the soft image of the government of Pakistan to all over the world,” Das added.
Pakistan is home to about eight million Hindus, according to estimates from the country’s Hindu Council. The last official figures were released in 1998, when the population of the minority community was put at three million. Most Hindus are based in the southern province of Sindh, which borders India.
The latest numbers on religious minorities in the 2017 census are yet to be published.
Islamabad is home to an estimated 3,000 Hindus.
“For the Hindu population in Islamabad, there is no place to gather … there was no temple, there was no community hall … which caused many issues for the community,” Lal Chand Mahli, parliamentary secretary on human rights and a member of the governing party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), told Al Jazeera.
The capital also lacks a crematorium, which is needed for Hindu funeral services, Mahli noted. This meant people were forced to take their deceased loved ones to their hometowns for burial, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres.
Furthermore, the new temple complex will work as a cultural centre for many Hindu visitors from far-flung places such as Sindh province.
Das, who has been living in the capital since 1973, said Islamabad was one of the most expensive cities in the country of 200 million. For most Hindus travelling to Islamabad, accommodation was unaffordable as many of them came from lower-income backgrounds, Das added.
Khan’s government has decided to provide 100 million rupees ($0.6m) in funding for the temple and associated facilities, local media outlet Dawn reported.
During a meeting, that included Mahli, with parliamentarians from religious minority groups on Thursday the prime minister directed the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri to release the funds.
Responding to a question in a news briefing held shortly after, the group of parliamentarians said Khan also directed Qadri to formulate a bill in two months addressing the contentious issue of forced conversions – of which the Hindu community, especially women, have been a target.
Qadri was not available immediately for comment.
According to a report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, some 1,000 cases of Hindu and Christian girls being forced to convert to marry Muslim men are recorded every year.
Since coming to power in August 2018, Khan’s government has often promised to improve conditions for minorities in the country, including the restoration of several religious shrines.
The government announced last year it was hoping to restore some 400 Hindu temples across the country as part of its plan to showcase the heritage of minorities, particularly Hindus and Sikhs.
Last November, the Pakistani government inaugurated the Kartarpur corridor, leading to one of the holiest sites in Sikh religion, where Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak spent his last days.
The corridor allows visa-free travel for approximately 5,000 Sikh pilgrims a day to the temple, crossing the border with India.
The move was one of the very few acts of cooperation between the Khan-led government and India, which has seen relations worsen in recent years.
Omar Waraich, head of South Asia at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that while the building of the temple was “a very welcome gesture” Pakistan’s Hindu community needed “a lot more than mere gestures”.
“They need protection – protection of their temples from attacks by vandals, protection of Hindu women and girls from forced conversions, and the protection of the whole community from discriminatory laws and practices that have long subjected them to persecution,” he added.
In its 2019 report on Pakistan, Amnesty said religious minorities in Pakistan continued to be persecuted, including under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and attacks from hardliners.
Hindu properties and places of worship have faced attacks, with the most recent incident being reported from Thar, Sindh, where at least four people were charged for vandalising a temple.
Last September, a Hindu school principal was detained by the police in the Ghotki, Sindh, for alleged blasphemy, leading to riots by far-right protesters.