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Pakistan’s religious minorities ‘face acute levels of persecution’, warns new report

9 December 2014

The persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels, according to a major new report released by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) today.

Despite some recent signs of progress in Pakistan, including the first democratic transition of power in May 2013, religious communities such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus live in daily fear of harassment and intimidation. Escalating violence against Shi’a Muslims also points to the growth of an even more exclusionary form of nationalism based on a very specific understanding of ‘Muslimness’.

The report, Searching for Security: The Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan, concludes that the government has done little to stop the mistreatment of minorities, who are systematically denied social and political rights. For example, Ahmadis remain designated ‘non-Muslims’ by Pakistan’s Constitution and are consequently denied the right to vote, while Christians and others are regularly accused and disproportionately prosecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In an especially high profile case, in October 2014 Lahore’s high court upheld the death penalty against a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, despite sustained pressure to suspend the sentence. Others have been extra-judicially killed as a result of blasphemy allegations, including a Christian couple beaten and burned to death by a mob in November 2014.

Drawing on an extensive review of published research and interviews with a range of activists and minority representatives, the report explores the key drivers of Pakistan’s continued discrimination against its minorities, including legal barriers directly supported by the government.

‘The Pakistani government has systematically failed to protect the rights of religious minorities, who face discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives,’ said MRG’s Director of Programmes. ‘The government’s unwillingness to protect all citizens not only violates Pakistan’s international legal commitments, but also helps foster a climate of impunity for the perpetrators of abuse, while minorities suffer in silence.’

In 2014, Ahmadi and Hindu communities faced a surge of violent attacks including multiple incidents targeting places of worship. Hundreds of Hindus are believed to have fled Pakistan during the past year as a result of religious persecution, while doctors, lawyers and human rights activists from minority communities, or advocating on their behalf, have been murdered with impunity. Minority women face additional threats, including the risk of forced conversions and marriages.

The discrimination facing non-Sunni Muslims in Pakistan has emboldened extremist groups and enabled the proliferation of hate speech, which circulates in mosques, on social media and even in the classroom. They have also been subjected to regular incidents of violence, including an attack in June that killed a group of approximately 24 Shi’a Muslim pilgrims near the Iranian border.

‘Religious intolerance and sectarian violence has been able to flourish often as a direct consequence of a legal environment that treats certain religious communities like second-class citizens,’ added Ahmad Salim, Senior Adviser at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).

‘The government’s ability to protect all faiths, including its religious minorities, is not only a test of its willingness to preserve its rich social diversity but will also be a major determinant of Pakistan’s future stability.’

Pakistan has consistently ranked among the top ten countries with minorities at risk of mass violence on MRG’s annual Peoples under Threat index.