Pakistani authorities have initiated an inquiry into allegations that members of the Sikh religious minority have been forced to convert to Islam in the country’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The Sikh community in Hangu district last week filed a complaint, accusing a government official of forcing them to convert to Islam.
The provincial government reportedly suspended Tehsil Tall Yaqoob Khan, assistant commissioner of Hangu, on suspicion of involvement in the case.
The government confirmed that a high-level investigation is underway and measures have been taken to avoid such incidents in the future.
“The government takes such sensitive matters very seriously. The official who demanded the Sikhs to convert was suspended promptly,” Shaukat Yousufzai, spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, told VOA.
“Islam and our constitution doesn’t allow forced conversions,” Yousufzai added.
Sikhs are a small religious minority in Pakistan. According to government statistics published in 2012, there are about 7,000 registered Sikhs living in Pakistan, mainly in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including the semiautonomous tribal region that shares a border with Afghanistan.
The community, which could number as many as 20,000 countrywide, has been subject to continued discrimination and violence over the years because of their religious affiliation. The Sikh community complains the recent incident in Hangu shows that discrimination against them is systematic and official.
“Had it been from someone ordinary, it would have never been felt so offending, but when you hear such things from a government official, it becomes something really serious,” Farid Chand Singh, a Sikh community leader from Hangu, told Pakistan’s Express Tribune, a daily English-language newspaper.
The Sikhs say they feel extremely vulnerable in Pakistan and the recent allegations indicate that those who are supposed to protect their rights instead force them to convert to Islam, according to media reports.
Pakistan’s neighbor, India, which is home to tens of millions of Sikhs, reacted to the incident.
Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister of external affairs, said in a tweet Tuesday that India will discuss the matter with Pakistan.
Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, Thursday confirmed the incident and said the government is investigating the matter. Reacting to Swaraj’s tweet, Faisal said what occurred in Hangu is an internal issue for Pakistan to deal with.
“Once all facts are available to us, we will then give an official and detailed response to the Indian minister,” Faisal told the media.
Over the years, there have been a number of religiously motivated attacks against minority Sikhs in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In some cases, they have been kidnapped for ransom.
In 2014, unknown gunmen opened fire on Sikhs’ in a bazaar in Peshawar, killing one Sikh shopkeeper and injuring two others.
In 2016, Sardar Suran Singh, a Sikh leader and a provincial lawmaker, was killed near his home about 160 kilometers from the provincial capital, Peshawar.
Such actions have led some Sikhs to relocate to other regions of Pakistan or leave the country.
Rights activists are concerned about the plight of religious minorities and a growing intolerance toward them in Pakistan.
“These incidents bring [a] bad name to Pakistan and can incite violence and hatred in the country. The government must ensure that all minorities feel safe and can carry on with their religious activities freely,” Mehdi Hassan, a Pakistan-based human rights activist, told VOA.
“If the government will not take sufficient actions, the society will divide, and we as a nation cannot afford it,” Hassan warned.
Qibla Ayaz, head of Pakistan’s religious affairs watchdog, the Council of Islamic Ideology, said government officials must ensure that all religious minorities living in Pakistan are granted constitutional protections.
“The constitution of Pakistan gives equal rights to the people of any faith or minority in Pakistan, and there is no room for anyone to force anybody else to change their religion,” Ayaz said.
He added that the government must provide the necessary training to its employees so that they are aware of the rights granted to religious minorities living in Pakistan.
“Our government officials should read the constitution so that they’ll have a better understanding on the matter and such incidents could be avoided,” Ayaz said.
VOA Urdu’s Shahnaz Aziz and Muhammad Ishtiaq contributed to this report.