On a hot and humid Friday earlier this month in Shahdara Town, a congested neighborhood in Pakistan’s second most populous city Lahore, mosques began blaring calls for Muslims to demolish an Ahmadi place of worship.
Hours earlier, some local clerics had called the police demanding action against the building because it resembled a traditional mosque. Within hours, laborers were hammering away at the arch and minarets of the minority worship place while police stood guard.
“It was such a painful moment for us,” said a member of the minority group who was present inside the building during the demolition. He asked that VOA identify him as Ahmad as he feared for his safety.
Pakistani Ahmadis, who are barred from calling themselves Muslims, say they are bracing for a wave of attacks this Friday when the country celebrates the birth of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The minority group has recorded nearly three dozen attacks on its places of worship this year, including break-ins and vandalism. Representatives say it is the highest number of such incidents since 1984, when a law was enacted prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as Muslims.”
On September 7, 1974, Pakistan’s parliament added the 2nd Amendment to the country’s constitution, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims after months of agitation from religious political parties.
The Ahmadi movement was founded in1890s in the Indian subcontinent. Its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, claimed to be Islam's awaited Messiah and prophet. However, mainstream Muslims believe prophethood ended with Muhammad.
A decade later, the parliament passed what is commonly known as Ordinance XX. The law prohibited the community from a host of activities including performing any rituals or using any symbols associated with Islam.
As arches and minarets are a common feature of mosques around the world, many in Pakistan interpret Ordinance XX to prohibit Ahmadis from using such features on their places of worship, which they are also not allowed to call “mosques.”
While the community has faced persecution and lethal attacks in Pakistan for decades, human rights activists blame the increased targeting of Ahmadi places of worship on an “environment of impunity.”
“The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is almost wholly legalized,” said Saroop Ijaz of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group.
“The lack of consequences for these attacks has resulted in emboldening those who seek to attack them,” Ijaz told VOA.
Ahmadi community representatives blame Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, a far-right religious political party founded in 2015, for the spike in attacks on places of worship.
“There are examples of them publicly threatening that this [demolition of minarets or arches] must be done by a specific date,” said Amir Mahmood, a spokesperson for the Ahmadi community.
Mahmood said the party has issued a deadline for law enforcement authorities in some cities of Punjab to demolish minarets of Ahmadi places of worship by Friday, when Muslims will celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Punjab, the most populous Pakistani province, has seen the bulk of anti-Ahmadi activity this year.
Speaking to VOA, TLP spokesperson Yaseen Malik denied the party was issuing any threats. However, he called Ahmadis “blasphemers.” In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death.
TLP leaders routinely use offensive anti-Ahmadi language in rallies and gatherings and call for the killing of blasphemers. Since its founding, the party has staged several protests of actions it perceived as blasphemous or pro-Ahmadi.
The party's message of "defending Prophet Muhammad's honor" has mass appeal in Pakistan. TLP's street-power has enabled it to force the country’s government to negotiate with it and in some instances comply with its demands. Fearing violence, local law enforcement authorities tend to placate the party’s supporters as well.
The Ahmadi community accuses the police of capitulating to the demands of extremist forces.
“The police in the name of maintaining law and order is forcing … members of the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya to tear down the minarets of their places of worship,” said community spokesperson Mahmood.
Ahmad, a witness of the demolition in Shahdara Town, told VOA the laborers who tore down the arch and minarets were called by the police.
Speaking to VOA, a senior area police officer who did not want his name to be used because of the sensitivity of the issue rejected the charge, though he admitted the police worried about possible mob violence.
“We have to maintain law and order, and we try to resolve the issue as well as prevent any incident that could cause unrest at the national or local level,” said the officer, who maintained that police were present on the scene to ensure the security of the Ahmadi residents.
In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan accused law enforcement and the religious far right of “systematically and deliberately” shrinking the space for Ahmadis after the Shahdara Town incident. The rights watchdog found police complicit in similar incidents last year.
In a written statement to VOA, Punjab police rejected the allegation.
‘Contempt of court’
A decision of the Lahore High Court in August said the 1984 prohibition on building Ahmadi places of worship did not allow authorities to destroy or alter structures built before then.
“When our people show that order to police, requesting them to respect it, sadly, the police does not consider it,” lamented Mahmood, saying the demolitions amounted to “contempt of court.”
DIG Muhammad Waqas Nazir, Punjab police information officer, told VOA in written comments that his force acts “within the ambit of the law” when handling complaints lodged under the 1984 prohibition.
As Ahmadis brace for a possible wave of attacks on their places of worship this Friday, Human Rights Watch’s Ijaz said the persistent violation of Ahmadis’ civil rights, “does not reflect well on the writ of the state or the seriousness to protect law and order.”
Ahmad, who must pray in a damaged building after the attack earlier this month, told VOA that despite fear, he wants to remain hopeful for a better future.