Islamabad, Pakistan – Members of Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi community say their places of worship and graveyards are being attacked as part of a systemic and coordinated hate campaign.
Community spokesman Amir Mahmood told Al Jazeera on Tuesday they are facing a significant increase in attacks, particularly in the eastern province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous.
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Mahmood said at least 74 graves were vandalised in Punjab’s Daska city last week while minarets of two Ahmadi places of worship were demolished near the provincial capital, Lahore.
He accused police and administrative officials of demolishing their religious structures – one built before 1947, the year Pakistan was formed after independence from British rule – under pressure from a right-wing religious party.
“The religious party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), also threatened the local administration of serious consequences if the minarets of our place of worship are not destroyed,” Mahmood said.
“They have now issued an ultimatum to the administration to act upon their demands by Friday, which coincides with Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebrations,” he added.
The 500,000-member Ahmadi community is a religious minority in Pakistan, which considers itself Muslim, but was officially declared “non-Muslim” in 1974 through an amendment in the constitution.
A decade later, under the dictatorship of former military ruler Zia ul-Haq, a ruling barred the Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims” and disallowed them from publicly referring to themselves as Muslims. They were banned from practising aspects of the Islamic faith or publicly displaying any symbol that identified them as Muslims, including building minarets or domes on mosques, or publicly writing verses from the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
On Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country’s most prominent rights body, said at least 34 attacks on the Ahmadis’ religious places have taken place since January this year.
Reports from the Ahmadiyya community of at least 34 incidents since January, in which their sites of worship have been desecrated – including with the complicity of the police – should sound alarm bells for the government and for all progressive-minded people. No other community…
— Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (@HRCP87) September 25, 2023
According to data compiled by the community, in 2022, at least three Ahmadis were killed over their faith, while another 108 people were booked in various religious cases. At least 14 mosques and 197 graves belonging to the community were desecrated last year, they alleged.
Zaheer Aslam (whose name has been changed), an Ahmadi businessman, told Al Jazeera his ancestors lived in Daska, a small town of less than 200,000 people, even before the country was formed. He said less than 200 households in the town were now Ahmadis.
“Our community has always faced prejudice – sometimes viciously, sometimes more subtly. However, this year, the flames of hatred are far more intense,” he said.
Aslam said Daska is dotted with TLP banners calling for rallies against Ahmadis for allegedly insulting Islamic religious symbols.
“A rally was taken out today [Tuesday] which was full of hate speech against our community, while the administration sits quietly and watches it all unfold,” he told Al Jazeera.
Saadat Ali, a police official posted in Daska, said police are trying to ensure law and order in the city ahead of celebrations for the prophet’s birthday. He denied allegations that police were being pressured by the TLP or that police officials themselves desecrated graves.
“We received a complaint from TLP about Ahmadis displaying minarets on their places of worship. I told the group it was constructed before 1984 and they should refer to courts to seek guidance. It does not fall under police’s ambit,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
But community spokesman Mahmood rejected the claims by the police.
“I would like to ask the administration: did they [attackers] not carry out their operation in the dark, under police protection? What right did they have? It was our graveyard, bought by our money, and it only buried people from our community. What law allowed them to take this action?” he asked.
While police say they are prepared for any eventuality ahead of Friday’s celebrations, the Ahmadi community in Daska remains apprehensive.
Aslam, the business owner, said a majority of people campaigning against Ahmadis do not belong to Daska and had come from nearby towns and villages.
“People of the city, by and large, are not active participants in these hate-filled rallies. But circumstances are such that nobody has the courage to come out and publicly support or defend us,” the 47-year-old said. “There is an air of fear and intimidation completely suffocating us.
“We were told not to call our places of worship as mosques. We were told not to give azaan [the call to prayer]. We were told not to write Quranic verses on our homes or graves. What do they want from us next? That we stop breathing the same air lest we contaminate it?”