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Pakistan urged to act to defend religious minorities

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On the eve of national elections, Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities are under threat from serious sectarian violence, a new report from Minority Rights Group International (MRG) warns. The report recommends that those responsible for crimes of ethnic and religious hatred including recent killings, destruction of property and places of worship, and crimes of sexual violence, must be brought to justice and steps taken to instigate independent inquiries into these acts.

The killing of seven Christian charity workers in Karachi on 25 September is the latest in a number of attacks on religious minorities including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and Shia Muslims, which have escalated in recent months. MRG’s new report highlights the fact that religious minorities have long suffered from discrimination, harassment and lack of effective social, economic and political participation in Pakistan. Recent factors including Pakistan’s declared support for the US ‘war against terrorism’ and allied action against the Taliban in Afghanistan have served to further inflame religious and anti-Western tensions and have led to outbreaks of extremist violence against both ethnic and religious minorities.

Pakistan’s Hindu minority, traditionally marginalized within Pakistan, have been further targeted due to continuing political discord between India and Pakistan over the disputed state of Kashmir. Recent violence by Hindus against Muslims in the Indian State of Gujurat, resulting in several hundred Muslim deaths, has served to further stigmatise the Hindu minority in Pakistan and led to increased communal tensions.

‘The current situation is dangerous and could escalate into one of widespread violence against minorities’, stated MRG’s Director, Mark Lattimer. ‘Successive governments have used religion for political ends. Pakistan must fulfil its obligations under international law in actions as well as words, and move to protect the rights of all its citizens without prejudice.’

MRG documents a number of examples of attacks against religious minorities including the massacre of worshippers in Bahawalpur on 28 October 2001 and a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad on 17 March 2002 as well as numerous attacks against Ahmadis and Muslim groups including Shia Muslims and Zikris. Importantly, acts of violence against women such as rape and honour killings, both within and across religious communities, are highlighted as issues of grave concern.

MRG’s report calls on the newly elected Government of Pakistan and on General Pervez Musharraf to establish independent commissions for racial, religious and gender equality with authority to investigate complaints and to enhance the capacity of the judiciary in this respect. The authorities should ensure that religious and other minorities can participate fully in all aspects of public life, and consider mechanisms to achieve this including reserved seats in government, Parliament and consultative bodies. Laws and constitutional provisions which demonstrably result in discrimination against religious minorities, such as Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law*, should also be modified or revoked to ensure that discrimination ceases.

*MRG’s report documents numerous cases of blasphemy laws being used against individuals from both non-Muslim and Muslim religious minorities. In addition blasphemy allegations have resulted in major incidents such as an attack against Christians in Khanewal, in 1997 resulting in the demolition of the Christian villages of Shantinagar and Tibba Colony during which 13 churches and 700 properties were destroyed and several people were killed. In 1998, Justice Nazeer Akhtar of Lahore High Court suggested that blasphemers should be killed immediately.

Notes for editors

  • The report Religious Minorities in Pakistan by Dr. Iftikhar H. Malik is available here.
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