Religious minorities in Pakistan challenge constitution to protect rights and security
Provisions within Pakistan’s constitution to ensure religious freedoms and safeguards to religious minorities have been undermined by laws and policies which give preferential treatment to the majority religious group, and by apathy on the part of successive governments. Continued incidents of violence against religious minority groups, attacks and destruction of their places of worship and killing and rape of members of minority communities, are a matter of grave concern according to religious minority representatives who have called for an Independent body to address the situation.
Mr Samson Salamat representing the National Commission for Justice and Peace – Pakistan, drew attention to a number of factors which act to give preferential treatment to Muslims and infringe civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights of religious minorities. Amongst these is the fact that a Council of Islamic Ideology has been functioning in Pakistan for the last 48 years, with an advisory constitutional role to see that the law of the land follows Islamic teachings. According to Mr Salamat, the Law of Evidence reduces the value of court testimony of non- Muslim citizen and Muslim women to half of that of a Muslim male, in cases constituted under Islamic laws.
Additional powers are held under a Federal Shariat Court functioning as an alternative judicial system. A non-Muslim cannot be a lawyer or judge in this court, which has powers to amend or to declare defunct any law it considered repugnant to Islam. Successive governments have failed to avoid misuse of blasphemy laws, which deal with offences pertaining to religion and have been a major source of intimidation and persecution of religious minorities since their introduction in the 1980s. Statistics show that between 1986-2003, 227 (42%) cases were brought against Muslims, and 310 (58%) against members of religious minorities including Christians, Ahmadis & Hindus. 16 of those accused were executed including Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of the Lahore High Court who passed orders vindicating an individual accused of blasphemy.
A series of recommendations suggested by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, include the establishment of an Independent Permanent Commission for Minorities with powers of a Tribunal, which can entertain complaints and provide redress. Mr Salamat also urged the implementation of the recommendations given by the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, after his visit to Pakistan in 1996 that Pakistan should repeal all the discriminatory laws and policies including Blasphemy laws without delay.
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