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Parliamentarians and activists in UK debate state of religious freedom, minorities in Pakistan

NEW DELHI: Parliamentarians, academicians, and activists came together in the UK under the aegis of ABHI-UK to discuss the “The State of Religious Freedom and Minorities in Pakistan”.

The speakers at the were Theresa Villers, Chipping Barnet, Farahnaz Ispahani, Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute; Dr. Waris Hussain, Senior Staff Attorney for South and Southeast Asia with the ABA Justice Defenders Program; Dr. Rubina Greenwood, Chair of World Sindhi Congress; and Jonathan Lord, MP Working. Seth Oldmixon from Liberty South Asia moderated the event.

Ispahani, who also served as the Advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister began by sharing her observations on the Gojra massacre of Christians in Pakistan. She argued that during partition, Pakistan got a share of around 23% of the landmass from united India and had 23% of the non-Muslim population.

Currently, the total population of non-Muslims is meagre 3%. Besides being persecuted, minorities are seeking refuge in other countries – Hindus are moving to India and Christains to the US, UK, and Australia. Most of the minority populations have lost their leadership.

She highlighted that the last month has been one of the worst periods for Pakistani minorities. The Srikrishna temple project which was given a go-ahead, earlier by Nawaz Sharif and later by Imran Khan, was abandoned after there was an assault on the boundary wall of the temple premises. There are at least three thousand Hindus in and around the location where the temple was being created.

She classified the marginalisation of minorities in Pakistan into inter-Islamic and intra-Islamic categories, as there is persecution even within the Islamic religion in Pakistan. There is an ongoing project of purifying the pure land. The Constitution was earlier constituted and later amended to achieve this objective, leading to constitutional discrimination against Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Jains.

During the 1980s, the purification process reached the Ahmaddiyyas and Shias. Southern Punjab and Sindh have been a land of Sufi culture, similar to Ajmer Sharif in India. The Pakistani population has been brainwashed too and motivated to persecute the minorities. Only Wahabi and Deobandi Muslims are immune in Pakistan. Even if they raise voices to support minorities, they lose their immunity.

On being asked why did the Sikh pilgrimage to Kartarpur not get a pushback, which is opposite to the protests on Hindu temple and why there was a difference in the public response to these two different holy sites, Farahnaz highlighted that the Pakistani military is strongly involved in Kartarpur Corridor. It is clearly a military establishment. Besides, when Prime Minister Imran Khan campaigned, he promised to uphold the blasphemy law when elected to power. He is personally strongly conservative and Islamist. He has the habit of taking U-turns, over and over. The formation of the national commission on minorities reflects this. According to Justice Jilani, it was supposed to be set up by a parliamentary committee, free from the judiciary and military. To please international organisations and watchdogs, Imran Khan formed the commission, but with appointed members, without leaders wanted by the minority community. Hence, it became an overhead commission.

The case of Sindh, which is relatively a progressive province, is a bit different from the rest of Pakistan. Sindh was the first state to propose the bill against forced conversion which was taken back under pressure from the Islamic commission. Since Pakistan knows that Sindh is more secular, it started to put in more effort to take on it and promote Wahhabism. Earlier there were 1500

There are 24 thousand of Madrasas in Pakistan. These madrassas are established in Hindu majority areas, leading to increased conversions, according to Ispahani.

She argued that the only situation where Pakistan performs is under pressure. “We need to put tighter conditions on global agreements and mechanisms like GSP+ to ensure that minorities remain protected against the ever-increasing threat. She further demanded that Imran Khan should grow a spine and make sure that Sri Krishna Mandir and Hindu crematorium projects go forward and are given protection. She also demanded to empty the jails from people of minority communities facing fake blasphemy cases. “

Finally, she recommended the idea of an international petition/letter, with a list of actionable items, addressed to the British High Commission, the Pakistani government, and international organisations. She suggested the letter to be signed by parliamentarians, activists, and leaders from Pakistani minorities.

Rubina Greenwood shared experiences of her childhood days in Sindh when she used to celebrate Holi and Diwali. However, since the last 25 years, things have dramatically changed. The persecution of Hindu Sindhis is hardly being raised on international platforms. The ongoing practice is deteriorating the harmony of Sindh in the name of religion and politics. It has been estimated that at least 1000 women of minorities are abducted, married, and converted every year in Sindh.

Pakistani establishment supported by the Army, parliamentarians, and judiciary is promoting these abduction practices of underage Hindu girls. The idea is to make it a pure Wahabi land. Pakistan has signed treaties on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, etc.

Rubina put forward the idea of an open discussion and parliamentary debate on the persecution of young girls and children from minority commission in Pakistan. She said that the international community will have to ask Pakistan to demonstrate their performance on human rights in the last two to five years and then decide in order to release aid and funds to them. Also, whenever international commissions and panels are travelling to Pakistan, they should not be restricted to Islamabad, rather they should also try to travel to the interior areas of Pakistan to get the real picture of persecution of minorities.

Waris Hussain said that the appointed judiciary has played a major role in promoting abductions, instead of checking violations by state and non-state actors. The judges, instead of being objective, are supporting the majoritarian perspective. The blasphemy law is incredibly complicated to create second-class citizenship in Pakistan. The electoral laws, family laws, trust property laws, etc are several other laws that are promoting marginalisation of minorities in Pakistan. “We have to revamp the entire system to solve this problem. State and non-state actors act parallelly torturing minorities in Pakistan. You have a mob and you have the police. The mob attacks on minorities and police give the mob immunity against these.”

He further said that there is a great consistency involved in inconsistency. Pakistan says something else to international community and then takes a U-turn under the pressure from radical Islamist groups. It comes one step forward and takes two steps back. He also shared his experiences of the condition of Pakistani minorities, while working with USCIRF as a fellow. For example, the US was unhappy with Imran Khan on the minority commission, so Pakistan just set up the commission to protect itself from US anger and at the same time continuing persecution. Similarly, to receive funds from the US, Pakistan agreed to change the syllabus.

A follow-through by the US and the UK is required to ensure that anti-Hindu and anti-Christain syllabus gets changed. However, the change has to be in a more comprehensive way.

Theresa Villers talked about her experiences of working with the Hindu community in her constituency. She mentioned that according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the discrimination against the community is historical and institutional in Pakistan. Hindus live in economic disadvantage that adds to their vulnerability against the Muslim majority community. The temple controversy and delays and blockages including fatwas are proof of systematic marginalisation of Hindus in Pakistan. She also expressed her concerns about the education system of Pakistan. Textbooks promote marginalisation and alienation of religious minorities.

Even during Covid, Hindu and Christian minorities have been deprived of government benefit schemes.

The UK government has to recognise that as a former colonial power, involvement in internal issues comes with a lot of complications. So there is a need to find a way to efficiently engage with the Pakistani government to try and carve out a better future for minorities in Pakistan.

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