WASHINGTON - A government-funded project to construct a temple for minority Hindus in the capital, Islamabad, has stirred controversy in majority-Muslim Pakistan, with hardline Islamic clerics and politicians saying allocation of state money to the building goes against the Islamic ideology of the country.
Members of the Hindu community, however, say the project is their basic religious right and vow to build it at their expense if the government does not provide them with support.
Lal Chand Malhi, a Hindu-minority member and federal parliamentary secretary for human rights in Pakistan's National Assembly, told VOA that Prime Minister Imran Khan has agreed to grant Rs100 million in funds upon his request.
He said the building, known as the Shri Krishna Mandir, or Krishna temple, would serve as a multipurpose complex that would include a crematorium and community center for the estimated 4 million Hindus living in Pakistan.
“The prime minister readily agreed to my request. He was quite happy. And he directed the minister for religious affairs to clear any obstacles in the way to provide the funds for the temple to the Hindu Panchayath,” Malhi told VOA, adding, “there should be no obstacles. We should be allowed to build the temple over here.”
Initial work on the temple started June 23 during a ceremony. Its construction was welcomed by rights activists as an important step toward religious tolerance in the country.
On July 1, Islamic clerics from various seminaries held a press conference at the National Press Club in Islamabad protesting the construction. Right-wing Islamic political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), vowed that it was not going to allow the construction, with its leader Maulana Abdul Majeed Hazarvi threatening “severe reactions” if the government allowed the temple to be built in an “Islamic state.”
The government has since halted the construction and temporarily withdrawn funding after petitions were filed in court, challenging the construction of the temple.
Islamabad High Court dismissed the petitions after the government announced it would seek the guidance from the Council on Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body responsible for giving legal advice on Islamic matters.
Hafiz Maqsood Ahmed, the head of the Islamic political party known as Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith in Islamabad, told VOA that the temple was seen by many Muslims of the country as offensive.
“Bringing idol worship here amid a Muslim community in an Islamic society that is something different. The foundation of our country is that there is no God but Allah,” Ahmed said.
Pakistani authorities deny that the construction was stopped because of communal matters. The Capital Development Authority (CDA), a public benefit corporation operating under the government, said the Islamabad Hindu Panchayat failed to submit a building plan to begin construction.
"Until their building plans are approved, they cannot begin construction on the site. As far as the CDA is concerned, we issue allotments and approve building plans. They are responsible for the construction,” Shahid Mehmood, the chairman of CDA Design Vetting Committee, told VOA.
Pakistan has often come under international scrutiny for marginalizing religious minority groups and openly allowing their discrimination by hardline politicians, clerics and media outlets in the country. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern” for its “systematic” discrimination of religious minorities.
Pakistani media earlier this month reported that a group of men destroyed the temple’s boundary wall. The unverified video of the attack was posted on Facebook and widely circulated in the country’s social media.
Pritam Das, the president of the Islamabad Hindu Panchayat, confirmed the attack to VOA.
“We were constructing a boundary wall, but miscreants demolished the wall and destroyed the water boring. People are coming on the ground and giving [Islamic prayer] Azaan and offerings prayers. Others are openly threatening us. We are helpless, in this situation. This boundary wall was constructed with our own donations."
International watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called the hard-liner’s campaign discriminatory and are urging the government to immediately resume work on the temple.
VOA’s Gaiti Ara Anis and Aurangzeb Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.