State’s Growing Role in the Decline of Religious Freedom in Pakistan

“Between July 2022 and June 2023, religious freedom and beliefs in Pakistan experienced significant deterioration, marked by an increasing involvement of state mechanisms. This encroachment manifested through the enactment of new legislation, the failure to implement existing laws and judicial mandates, and direct or indirect state actions or omissions. Additionally, there was a noticeable rise in the boldness of entities engaging in violations of religious freedom, including acts of violence and forced conversions.

This decline was highlighted in the report titled ‘A Culture Of Hate-Mongering,’ published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on Wednesday, and authored by researcher and journalist Rabia Mehmood. The report scrutinizes incidents affecting religious freedom within the country from July 2022 to June 2023, particularly in the aftermath of the heinous lynching of Sri Lankan factory supervisor Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot, following unfounded blasphemy allegations.”

The report critically observes that the state apparatus has exhibited minimal learning from the tragic Sialkot incident, evidenced by a subsequent pattern of lynchings, vigilante violence, and targeted assassinations under the guise of religious fervor. It pointedly critiques the institutionalization of detaining individuals accused of religious offenses under the pretext of preserving public order and mitigating violent provocation.

Further, the document highlights an uptick in mainstream political factions’ manipulation of religious sentiments within the observed timeframe. A notable instance of this is the amendment ratified by the Punjab government under the leadership of then-Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) affiliate Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (who later aligned with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), which introduced a clause about the finality of prophethood into the official marriage document. This amendment bears significant legal and religious consequences and underscores the longstanding marginalization of the Ahmadiyya community.

Furthermore, the report elucidates how political entities have instrumentalized religion as a means of denigrating adversaries, illustrated by an incident where a prominent figure from the then-governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leveled accusations against the erstwhile Prime Minister and founder of the opposition party, PTI, for “the inappropriate exploitation of religious citations.”

Subsequently, a journalist faced charges of blasphemy and defamation for broaching discussions on Imran Khan’s religiously infused remarks. A subsequent assault on Imran Khan at a public gathering later that year was linked to his religious commentary, casting it as an episode of religious radicalism.

The report also sheds light on the significant influence wielded by religious factions within the parliamentary domain, notably their initiative to propose legislation expanding blasphemy laws’ parameters. This is exemplified by amendments proposed to the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill by Jamaat-e-Islami’s Mushtaq Ahmed Chitrali, which introduced clauses bearing sectarian biases, predominantly anti-Shia in nature, and recommended augmenting the penalty for defamation of the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions to ten years of incarceration.

An escalation in blasphemy allegations and related incidents was also recorded during the period under review.

In July 2022, an extraordinary episode unfolded amidst a series of violent reactions to accusations of blasphemy, when the names of two Wi-Fi networks at a mobile telephone company’s outlet in central Karachi sparked outrage, leading to the mobilization of an incensed crowd. This group proceeded to close nearby shops and initiate a demonstration, culminating in the arrest of the store’s manager and employees by law enforcement.

In September 2022, a Christian individual was apprehended for disseminating a contentious message through WhatsApp.

The following month, a woman, reportedly suffering from mental health issues, was accused of defiling Islamic sacred texts.

Throughout the same timeframe, aggressions towards the Ahmadiyya community intensified, with assaults on their places of worship and members.

A particularly alarming trend identified during this period was the increasing complicity of law enforcement agencies. While not always actively participating in such provocations, their tacit support was evidenced by a failure to afford protection to minorities under the law, effectively enabling the persecution.

The report highlights a marked increase in assaults on Ahmadiyya worship sites over recent years, predominantly in Punjab and Sindh, carried out with significant impunity. It notes, “The rapidity and pattern of the vandalism, intimidation tactics by ultra-conservative factions, the conciliation of extremists by law enforcement officials, and the deliberate action by authorities in disfiguring the exteriors of Ahmadi properties and dismantling minarets, collectively indicate a pronounced readiness among law enforcement personnel to prioritize the sentiments of the Muslim majority ostensibly under the pretext of upholding law and order.”

A fact-finding mission conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Punjab in January 2023 revealed that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had initiated a focused campaign against the Ahmadiyya community in Gujranwala and its vicinity. It was found that the police and district administration yielded to the TLP’s demands rather than countering them. Such capitulation facilitated an environment conducive to perpetuating attacks on the Ahmadiyya community within the area.

The period of 2022/23 saw the desecration of over 87 Ahmadiyya graves, with no fewer than 84 of these incidents occurring in Punjab, where police involvement or tacit complicity in some instances was noted.

In March 2023, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on minority issues, freedom of religion or belief (FORB), freedom of expression, and the independence of judges and lawyers forwarded a communication to the Government of Pakistan, expressing their grave concerns regarding the violent assaults on the Ahmadi community, the proliferation of hate speech, and the incitement to violence propagated by anti-Ahmadi elements and endorsed by official entities, including law enforcement and legal institutions. They underscored the urgency of their prior calls for corrective measures by the Pakistani authorities, lamenting that the security situation for the community had further deteriorated in the absence of effective intervention.

The report documents that in the year 2022 alone, there were 171 registered cases of blasphemy, with the highest incidence in Punjab, accounting for 112 cases. The following year saw 552 individuals, including 13 women, incarcerated in Punjab on charges of blasphemy, demonstrating a significant uptick. Sindh reported 33 cases, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 14, Islamabad Capital Territory seven, Balochistan two, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir three. Of these, 88 cases were filed against Muslims, 75 against Ahmadis, four against Christians, and two against Hindus.

A particularly alarming trend identified in the report is the escalating adoption of extremist rhetoric within the legal fraternity, transforming them into conduits of oppression against religious minorities. Notably, the report references directives issued by bar associations and councils mandating attorneys to denounce Ahmadis as non-Muslims as a prerequisite for legal practice within their jurisdictions, highlighting a disturbing trend of institutionalized discrimination.

Specialized factions within the law enforcement community have been identified, engaging proactively in the initiation of blasphemy charges stemming from both tangible occurrences and digital interactions (via social media or messaging applications). These groups have established dedicated channels for direct communication with the designated officials responsible for processing such cases.

This practice casts a shadow over the nation’s commitment to human rights, with the perpetuation of forced conversions particularly highlighting systemic failancies. Women and girls from religious minorities, representing the most susceptible demographics, endure the brunt of this egregious violation, exacerbated by the lack of comprehensive national legislation aimed at eradicating forced conversions and the inadequate implementation of laws against child marriage.

Furthermore, minority women face gender-based violence, a plight that remains grossly underreported due to various socio-cultural barriers.

Legislative efforts aimed at addressing forced conversions have stalled, contributing to the continuation of these violations. The report specifically identifies Ghotki in Sindh as a focal point for the forced conversion of teenage Hindu girls, underscoring a critical area of concern for human rights advocacy and the need for urgent legislative and enforcement reforms.

Despite limited domestic initiatives addressing the issue, an international response was noted in December 2022 when the United Kingdom imposed sanctions on Mian Mithu, a figure whose religious establishment in Sindh has been identified as a nexus for forced conversions within the region.

Additionally, the report highlights the occurrence of assaults on Hindu temples in Sindh on at least two documented occasions, specifying incidents in Karachi and Kashmore. These attacks underscore the persisting vulnerabilities faced by religious minorities and their places of worship, further emphasizing the urgent need for comprehensive protective measures and legal reforms.

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