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Pakistani Religious Minority Leaders Protest Travel Ban

An alliance of Pakistani religious-minority leaders is appealing a government order barring their chairman from traveling, a move the group says was designed to silence its voice overseas.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance Chairman Shahbaz Bhatti says the government has not said why it banned him from traveling abroad, but says the alliance plans to take the issue to court.

He speculates that the ban may have something to do with his recent U.S. and European speaking tours, in which he highlighted the plight of the country's Christians, Sikhs, and other non-Muslim groups.

Mr. Bhatti says the ban is unfair, as he and other leaders of the alliance never criticize Pakistan as a nation during their speeches overseas.

"We always spoke on the issue of minorities within the parameter of Pakistan and as a loyal citizen of our country," he said.

Mr. Bhatti says the travel ban only reinforces the sense of discrimination felt by many non-Muslims, who account for about three percent of Pakistan's population. He says a number of Pakistan's laws favor Muslims over members of other religions. He cites laws that make blasphemy against Islam a crime, as well as the controversial Christian marriage act, which he says allows courts to dissolve a marriage if one of the parties converts to Islam.

Mr. Bhatti says the marriage act has been used to subvert justice when Muslim men perpetrate crimes against non-Muslim women.

"Due to this law, our Christian and other minority women have been abducted, tortured, kidnapped, and their culprit then declares that they accepted Islam, and then their parents and husbands cannot pursue [justice] for them," said Shahbaz Bhatti.

Pakistan Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, whose ministry imposed the Bhatti travel ban last month, says he cannot discuss the case.

But Mr. Hayat says the alliance's protests are exaggerated and should be dealt with through the Parliament.

"There are members of the Christian community and other minority communities sitting in the Parliament," he said. "None of them have as yet raised their concerns regarding the blasphemy law or Christian marriage act."

A spokesman for Mr. Bhatti's group, Asher Chaudhry, says the alliance includes several members of Parliament, and that they have attempted several times to repeal the marriage act. He says another attempt is planned for the current legislative session.