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August 24, 2012

Pakistan Struggles to Protect Religious Minorities

by Ayaz Gul

ISLAMABAD — Authorities in Pakistan have come under growing criticism for being unable to protect the rights of religious minorities. Most of Pakistan's 180 million people are Sunni Muslim. Christians complain they are unfair targets of the country’s blasphemy laws that carry death penalty for anyone found guilty of defaming Islam, and the minority Hindu community says its members are migrating to India to avoid forced conversions.

The imprisonment in Pakistan this month of a young Christian girl accused of violating the country’s blasphemy laws is being cited as one of the latest incidents of growing intolerance toward religious minorities.

The incident occurred just outside Islamabad but details remain sketchy. The detained girl, Rimsha Masih, is said to be 11 years old and mentally handicapped.

Police arrested Rimsha after scores of angry Muslims gathered outside her house and accused her of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Quran. 

Defending human rights

The chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Zohra Yousuf, condemns the blasphemy charge against the Christian girl as "preposterous" and “beyond comprehension.”

"The fear that is prevalent in the [Christian] community is very disturbing because they are equal citizens of Pakistan and there is no justification for treating the community, the way they have been terrorizing them and forcing them to flee their village," said Yousuf.

Human rights groups have long demanded authorities reform of the blasphemy laws, saying religious fanatics misuse them by making unfounded allegations that have often led to violent mob attacks against minorities.

Yousuf welcomes the government’s quick intervention into the case, saying it raises hopes the girl will either be released soon or a proper investigation will determine the circumstances that led to the charges against her. 

"But the bigger issue of the misuse of the blasphemy laws is not being addressed. The government seems perhaps too scared. It does not have the political will to stand up to religious extremists and take a position," said Yousuf.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), an influential Christian organization, is also urging Pakistani leaders to protect minority groups against growing intolerance.

Mathews George Chunakara, the Council’s director for international affairs, says the group plans to hold an conference in Geneva next month (September 17-19) to increase awareness about the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Blasphemy laws

Chunakara insisted that without reforming or repealing the blasphemy laws Pakistani leaders cannot prevent their misuse.

"Actually, we are providing an interfaith and inter-religious platform to address this issue from an inter-religious perspective, mainly to highlight the deteriorating situation of the human rights of minorities in Pakistan, and how the misuse of blasphemy law is happening and occurring every now and then in the Pakistani society," he said.

Local and international rights groups have demanded Pakistan at least repeal the death penalty as a first step toward reforming the law.

Dialogue for interfaith harmony

The Pakistan prime minister's advisor on national harmony, Paul Bhatti, says the government has initiated a dialogue to promote interfaith harmony and several proposals are under consideration to fix issues related to the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti says people who are prepared to kill and be killed, have been misled by radicals in the name of Islam because "they have been brain washed and there is a generation which is prepared for that."

In recent years several minority communities in Pakistan, including Shiite Muslims and Hindus have been targeted in attacks by religious extremists.

Suspected Sunni militants executed at least 25 members of a Shiite sect in the northern Mansehra region after taking them off their buses.

Leaders of the minority Hindu community in Sindh province have reported rising incidents of alleged forced conversions by Muslim clerics. They have also become regular targets of crimes such as kidnapping for ransom in the insurgency-hit Baluchistan province.

Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, head of Pakistan Hindu Council, says that because of security reasons around 50 Hindu families are migrating to India every month.

“There is no law to stop the forced conversions," said Vankwani.

Pakistani authorities say they are looking into the complaints of the Hindu minority and admit there is a need for legislation.

But critics are skeptical of the government's ability to amend the blasphemy laws, especially at a time when the country is preparing for new elections.