Little to Celebrate for Pakistan’s Non-Muslim Minorities on Independence Day

By Patrick Goodenough | August 14, 2013 | 4:40am EDT

Members of non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan hold a Minorities Day protest in Lahore to protest against discrimination, blasphemy laws and deadly sectarian violence. (Photo: Human Rights Focus Pakistan)

( – Pakistan commemorates its 67th independence day on Wednesday, but for religious minorities in the world’s second most-populous Islamic state, there is little to celebrate after another year of deadly violence targeting non-Muslims.

A hand grenade attack Tuesday targeting two Karachi prayer houses packed with adherents of the Ismaili branch of Shi’ism – a minority within a minority in Pakistan – underlined the insecurity faced by non-Muslims, including Shi’ites, Christians and Hindus.

A woman and a child were killed and more than 40 worshippers injured in the near-simultaneous attack, police said. Ismailism is generally regarded as one of the most peaceful manifestations of Islam, but Ismailis are vulnerable to attacks by Sunni hardliners, who do not regard them as true Muslims.

In the last year, there have been numerous acts of sectarian violence targeting minorities, beginning on Independence Day 2012, when a 12-year-old Christian girl was gang raped and murdered, allegedly by five Muslims, in fields near her home in Punjab province.

Earlier this week, non-Muslim Pakistanis marked Minorities Day, an observance meant to recognize the contribution of minorities but one that has become a day of protest against discrimination and injustice.

Minorities Day falls on the anniversary of a landmark speech by the revered founder of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, three days before independence in August 1947, in which he laid out a vision for a nation with “no discrimination between one caste or creed and another,” and with Muslims, Hindus and others all “equal citizens of one state.”

At a Minorities Day gathering in Lahore, several hundred representatives of minority communities held a “black day” event to draw attention to problems including deadly bombings targeting Shias, the use of blasphemy laws to target Christians and others, and incidents of abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion of Hindu girls.

Naveed Walter, president of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Focus Pakistan, who opened the event, said Tuesday that he recounted violent incidents targeting minorities – the “easiest target” in Pakistan – over the past year.

He noted a growing list of incidents where perpetrators of attacks were never brought to justice, and highlighted cases of blasphemy law misuse, including accusations brought against a young girl accused of burning pages of the Qur’an.

Unusually for a blasphemy case in Pakistan Rimsha Masih, who reportedly has Down syndrome, was acquitted following claims that a Muslim cleric had himself ripped out pages of the Qur’an and tampered with evidence in an attempt to frame her.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, a conviction for disparaging Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an carries the death penalty.

Another participant at the Lahore gathering, Joseph Francis of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement – a group that campaigns against the blasphemy laws and provides legal assistance to Christians – called for changes to Pakistan’s 1973 constitution, notably clauses that declare Islam to be the state religion and that require the president to be a Muslim.

Francis said the clauses effectively make religious minorities second-class citizens, contrary to Jinnah’s vision.

Other recommendations for the government drawn up by participants included repeal of the blasphemy laws; steps to end forcible conversion and marriage; a review of school textbooks to remove negative references to non-Muslims; and equitable representation of minorities in parliament.

They also called for the public release of information about investigations into numerous attacks on minorities, including a 2009 attack in a town called Gojra, triggered by blasphemy claims, in which eight Christians were killed; and the looting and torching of more than 150 Christians’ homes and stores last March by a Muslim mob, again angered by allegations of blasphemy.

‘Surreal inversion of justice’

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), more than 700 Pakistanis belonging to religious minorities were killed in more than 200 incidents of sectarian violence during the 18 months up to June this year. Shias were the hardest-hit community.

The USCIRF, an independent statutory body that advises the government on promoting religious freedom abroad, has every year since 2002 been recommending the Pakistan be listed as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). Designation would allow the U.S. to impose sanctions or use other measures to prod governments to improve religious freedom.

The State Department has disregarded the recommendation each year.

In an op-ed timed for Pakistan’s Minorities Day, USCIRF chairman Robert George wrote that the country “has betrayed Jinnah’s vision by failing to fulfill his words with concrete actions that protect religious minorities from harm.”

George noted nearly 40 people are either on death row or serving life sentences after being convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. At the same time, “not a single perpetrator” of the Gojra violence in 2009 has been brought to justice.

“Pakistan’s surreal inversion of justice, in which some are punished for alleged words and beliefs while others commit literal acts of violence against them with impunity and without consequence, must end,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf had no immediate comment Tuesday on violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, but said, “I would broadly say that around the world, we push for a respect for all human rights, including minority rights. We make that point repeatedly.”

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