ISLAMABAD - Years of economic pressures and alleged forced conversions to Islam continue to pose a threat to Pakistan’s tiny Kalash minority, the only pagans in the Islamic republic.

Once a large community that for many centuries ruled the scenic northern Pakistani district of Chitral and adjoining border areas of Afghanistan, the Kalash minority tribe has shrunk to around 4,000 people. They speak the Kalasha language and are now confined to three small valleys (Rumbur, Brumbret and Birir), high up in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Critics say successive Pakistani governments have done little to address the extinction threat to the Kalash and have failed to develop their poverty-stricken area to make it accessible for tourism to boost local economy.

Bleak future, festivals still popular

But despite the challenges, celebration mood and excitement remains undeterred at annual Kalash festivals where men and women, wearing traditional colorful dresses, dance and sing to entertain tourists.

Kalasha women mingle easily with male members of the society and are free to move on to new partners should the new lovers, under local customs,  be willing to pay the price.

Such an act is condemned as against family honor in many other parts of Pakistan, where families adhere to a strict religious and cultural code.

A community member, Mohammad Ali, says tourism is now the only source of income for the cash-strapped Kalash families. He cites repeated natural disasters in recent years such as rain-triggered floods and earthquakes that have immensely damaged the centuries old traditional livelihood of livestock and agriculture farming.

“There are no other sources of earning for us but tourism. A large number of our young people are jobless and annually some of them also convert to the Muslim faith [in exchange for jobs],” he said.

Ali complained that absence of a proper road to link the valleys to the rest of the country has over the years discouraged local and foreign tourists to show up in large numbers at their annual festivals. It also makes at extremely difficult for the community to transport patients to hospitals in Chitral for treatment in emergency, he says.

Government says little they can do

Pakistani officials acknowledge the “sorry and sad” situation facing the Kalash and also admit nothing is being done to reverse it.

“A lot of people are leaving their culture and their religion because of a lot of immense social pressure and there are forced conversions,” warns Fouzia Saeed, head of the national institute called Lok Virsa, which focuses on promoting and raising awareness about traditional Pakistani cultures.

Activists and researchers note the Kalash settlements are being rapidly encircled by the growing Muslim population because over the years the improvised pagan community has lost control of large parts of their lands to Muslims through sale or mortgage in exchange for paltry loans.

One God

Community leaders dismiss as “incorrect” many writings on the Kalash culture that suggest the tribe believes in twelve gods and goddesses.

They say the tribe believes in “a single, creative God” and is referred to as Dezauc. But the Kalash does not believe in divine books and messengers. That belief makes them “kafirs” or infidels in the eyes of Muslim communities, say critics, which has triggered the race for converting them to Islam.

Rich Muslim neighbors also keep up the social pressure by offering incentives such as good jobs and better marriage prospects for Kalash girls to encourage conversions, says Saeed.

“I think that this whole focus of a lot of religious groups hovering around them, this whole trend should have been stopped. There should have been a national level responsibility. It is not just the government I think that the whole society does not realize that these are our treasures,” she lamented.

Pakistan has seen a rise in Islamist militancy in recent years and extremist attacks have frequently hit parts of the country. Analysts and even officials admit fears of an Islamist backlash and losing support of religious parties in elections play a role in discouraging political leaders from publicly condemning and speaking against the conversion campaign.

Origin still a mystery

The mystery about the history and origin of the Kalash people, or Kalashas, remains unresolved. While some historians say they are indigenous people, others point to the fair skin, light eyes and brown hair of the Kalash, saying the tribe might have descended from the armies of Alexander the Great, which conquered this area in the fourth century B.C.

The belief in purity and impurity is deeply rooted in the Kalash society. Women are considered “impure” during their menstrual cycle and childbirth, and are not allowed to touch anyone. They are forced to spend their days in an isolated building called Bashali, which is off limits to men, and family members deliver food at the doorstep

There are no routine daily prayers, like the Muslim communities in the valleys. The Kalash do pray whenever they initiate any activities like harvesting, plowing, construction and whenever the favor and honor of Dezau is needed,

The Kalash tribe welcomes local and foreign tourists to their four main seasonal festivals that some observers say mirror the old pagan festivals of Europe. The celebrations involve rituals and sacrifices, dances, songs, feasts and alcohol, which the Kalash brew themselves.

The Kalash break all ties to those who convert to Islam and do not accept them back in the society, nor do they resort to violent means to discourage conversions. Although, abandoning Islam in favor of another religion elsewhere in Pakistan could trigger a fatal mob attack.

Activists also complain the rate of conversions is increasing by the year because in the absence of a curriculum for the minority community in government schools, Kalasha students are forced to opt for Islamic studies.

Critics believe urgent legal and administrative actions are required to effectively document and preserve the Kalash culture and bring investment to the area to improve lives of the pagans and protect them against forced conversions.

Provincial authorities say they plan to convene a donors conference on development projects and persevering the Kalash. The regional government says it will require huge funds because officials are unable to allocate public money with their limited budget.