Pakistan’s top rights group raises ‘alarm’ on religious freedom

The HRCP report focuses on forced conversions, desecration of places of worship and marginalisation of the Ahmadi community.

Pakistan religion
Christians devotees attend an Easter mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore [File: Arif Ali/AFP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A prominent rights group in Pakistan has expressed “considerable alarm” over the state of religious freedom in the country.

In its report titled A Breach of Faith: Freedom of Religion or Belief in 2021-22 released on Tuesday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said incidents of the country’s religious minorities facing persecution remained consistent between July 2021 and June 2022.

The HRCP report focused on forced conversions, the desecration of places of worship belonging to minorities and the marginalisation of the Ahmadi community.

It also questioned the standardised national curriculum in parts of Pakistan, which the group said has created an “exclusionary narrative that sidelines Pakistan’s religious minorities”.

The report said that in the year 2021 alone, “around 60 cases of forced conversion were reported in the local media, of which 70 percent were girls under the age of 18”, most of them from the Sindh province.

Last month, a group of rights experts from the United Nations had also deplored abductions, forced marriages and conversions of girls from Pakistan’s religious minorities, asking the government to take action.

Forced conversions and forced marriages are forbidden in Islam.

According to the HRCP report, Muslims account for about 96 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million population, Hindus 2.1 percent, Christians about 1.6 percent, while the Ahmadis number only about 0.2 percent.

Pakistan’s Shia Muslim community, while not counted as a religious minority in the census data, makes up about 20 percent of the total population.

The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim but are barred from referring to themselves as such, or from practising aspects of their faith under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.

The HRCP said the threshold of evidence regarding blasphemy accusations must be raised in the country.

“It must be ensured that the laws in question are not weaponised by people to settle personal vendettas, as is so often the case,” it said.

Data for 2021, cited by the HRCP, showed at least 585 cases of blasphemy were registered by the police, most of them in Punjab province. Of these, at least 16 cases were filed against members of the Ahmadi community.

According to an Al Jazeera tally, at least 80 people have been murdered in connection with blasphemy allegations in Pakistan since 1990.

The HRCP report further said more than half of all online hate speech (53 percent) in Pakistan is directed at the Ahmadi community, and made several recommendations to protect the country’s minorities.

The group said the controversial national curriculum must be revised to ensure that secular subjects do not contain any religious content or “any material that discriminates against religious minorities and sects or their faiths”.

“Unless these measures are implemented urgently, Pakistan will continue to foster a climate of impunity for perpetrators of faith-based discrimination and violence, allowing the already-narrow space for religious freedom to shrink even further,” the HRCP said in its statement.

The rights group called for urgent legislation to criminalise forced conversions and demanded the state make a concerted effort to counter sectarian violence by developing a national narrative that “unambiguously eschews religious extremism and majoritarianism”.

It also asked for the formation of an autonomous, nationally representative commission for religious minorities to be set up through an act of parliament.

HRCP director Farah Zia said the government’s claim on protecting the religious minorities cannot be seen in isolation and ties in with the state’s long-term policies that betray an uneasy relationship with the minority communities.

She said it was ironic that despite being a Muslim majority nation, Pakistan has struggled with the idea of equal citizenship since its inception.

“This is reflected in the discriminatory clauses of the constitution as well as in the egregious persecution of minorities by the society at large,” Zia told Al Jazeera.

“The problematic composition of the national commission for minorities, the single national curriculum and incidence of forced conversions only testify to this sense of insecurity of the majority.”

Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the HRCP report puts a spotlight on freedom of religion and belief in Pakistan.

“The authorities need to take urgent measures to end the legal discrimination against religious minorities and to prevent religious persecution and marginalisation of minorities. The authorities also need to hold perpetrators of violence and discrimination against religious minorities accountable,” she told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera