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Religious minorities targeted by rise in nationalist and extremist groups in South Asia – new report

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Religious minorities are facing increased incidents of targeted attacks and persecution across South Asia as states are turning a blind eye to the rise of nationalist and radical groups that are responsible for such acts, Minority Rights Group International says in a new report released today.

MRG’s flagship annual State of the World’s Minorities report, themed this year on religious minorities, says militant and extremist groups from the Taliban in Pakistan and the Vishva Hindu Parishad in India, to less known fringe groups such as Nepal’s National Defence Army have been accused of a series of religiously motivated killings and attacks through 2009.

‘In some South Asian states, national or regional governments are actively supporting extremist groups, while in other cases states are turning a blind eye to their increasing influence,’ says Shobha Das, MRG’s Head of Programmes.

‘Nationalist and extremist groups quite often have a free hand to target religious minorities due to a climate of impunity,’ she adds.

In 2009, Christians and Sikhs were displaced in the fighting between Pakistani government forces and the Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups were also responsible for several attacks against Christians including burning down churches, destroying Bibles and forcibly converting people to Islam. In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), several Sikh families were forced to pay jizya a religious tax, the report states.

Christians in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka also faced similar attacks, it says. In Sri Lanka, several churches and Hindu Kovils were destroyed in the last stages of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tigers, in May 2009. The Sri Lankan government also detained Christian priests who stayed with the civilian population until the fighting ended. In Nepal, also in May, two people were killed and over a dozen injured when a bomb went off in a crowded church in Dhobighat, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. A Hindu extremist group called the Nepal Defence Army claimed responsibility for the attack.

According to the report, in Bangladesh, there were a total of 541 incidents affecting Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious minorities during 2009, including assaults, land seizures and one killing. There were also 27 attacks on places of worship during the year, most instigated by local gangs or political leaders acting with impunity, the report adds.

‘Across South Asia, irrespective of the religious community you belong to, simply being in the minority puts you under increased threat of attack and persecution,’ says Farah Mihlar, MRG’s Media Officer.

‘The violence against religious minorities can often be gendered, and there have been incidents of rape reported by these communities,’ she adds.

2009 also saw increasing incidents of intra-religious attacks and persecution: of members of Sufi, Shi’a and Ahmadi sects by Sunni mainstream extremist groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; and of evangelical Christian groups in some countries, the report added.

Anti-terrorism laws and rhetoric were also used across the region to clamp down on the rights of minorities. In Sri Lanka, attacks on religious places of worship went unaccounted for, because they were seen as being part of the government’s ‘war on terror’. In India, the government has used counter-terrorism measures to arrest and detain large numbers of Muslims arbitrarily. In January 2009, thousands of people protested in Uttar Pradesh, accusing police of arresting young Muslim boys on terrorism charges with minimal evidence.

‘Across the world, there is a clear trend of counter-terrorism laws and rhetoric used to either carry out attacks against particular religious communities or justify restrictions of freedoms of particular groups,’ Das says, adding that South Asian states provide plenty of examples of this.

Notes to the Editor

  • You can access the report here.
  • Interview opportunities in Delhi are available with:
    • Shobha Das, MRG Director of Programmes
    • Farah Mihlar, MRG’s media officer and author of the South Asia chapter
    • Irfan Engineer, Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai, India
    • Interviews can also be arranged with MRG partner organisations in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
  • To arrange interviews, contact the MRG Press Office on press@minorityrights.org.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.
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