South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Safeguarding of human rights in Pakistan, or more specifically in its largest Punjab province, is complex, given the nation’s demographic diversity, huge population and a democracy that is an admixture of both Islamic and secular laws.

Pakistan’s Constitution, like any other provides for fundamental rights, but whether they are guaranteed is debatable because, every now and then, we hear of cases of religious discrimination against Christians, Hindus and non-Sunni Muslims, targeted terror-related sectarian and communal violence, caste discrimination in the corridors of power and electoral restrictions.

Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a moderate secular state, blended with Islamic values and principles, but what we have seen over the past 69 years, is a nation amending its Constitution several times to give the Islamic fundamental element a dominant say in politics and society.

The government claims to have launched several initiatives to promote religious pluralism and curb rising sectarian and religious violence, but factually, religious violence, particularly against the minorities, be they Ahmadiyyas, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Zoroastrians, is common throughout Pakistan.

They face violence, intimidation, periodic charges of blasphemy, which in Pakistan, carries a death penalty.

Extremism and terrorism have become political weapons against Christians, Hindus, Ahmadiyyas, Shia, Sufi and Sikh communities, especially in Punjab. These attacks are usually blamed on religious extremists, but certain laws in the Pakistan Criminal Code (PCC) and government inaction have allowed attackers to surge higher. Sunni militant groups are known operate with impunity against minorities, and it is quite common to see law enforcement turning a blind eye or appearing helpless to prevent such attacks.

Pakistan, in fact, is turning into a human rights graveyard. Experts say that using extremists and terrorists, and by default, the armed forces or even the ISI, as instruments of societal suppression is aimed at facilitating and ensuring the dominance of the Punjabi lobby over others.

Pakistan’s Christian community, which forms approximately 1.5 percent of the country’s population, has often been accused of blaspheming the Quran and Prophet Mohammad.

Some notable incidents involving blasphemy accusations were as follows:

On October 28, 2001, in Lahore, Islamic militants killed 15 Christians inside a church.

On September 25, 2002, two terrorists entered the “Peace and Justice Institute”, Karachi, where they separated Muslims from the Christians, and then executed eight Christians by shooting them in the head.

In November 2005, 3,000 militant Islamists attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches. The attack was over allegations of violation of blasphemy laws by a Pakistani Christian named Yousaf Masih.

In August 2006, a church and Christian homes were attacked in a village outside Lahore. Three Christians were seriously injured and one missing after some 35 Muslims burned buildings, desecrated Bibles and attacked Christians.

On August 1, 2009, nearly 40 houses and a church in Gojra were torched on the suspicion that Quran had been burnt there. While police watched, 8 victims were burned alive, 4 of them women, one aged 7. Eighteen more were injured. 

In April 2014, a Christian couple from Gojra, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, received death sentences.

On March 27, 2016, during Easter Sunday celebrations in Lahore’s Gulshan Iqbal Park, a suicide bomber killed 80 Christians and wounded another 340.

Ashiq Masih, the padre of the Lahore Church, then said, “The government is responsible for this incident. It is for the government to ensure that these bad people do not carry out malicious acts against Christians.”

Ikram Arif, a witness to the tragedy, said, “I saw bodies without heads, legs; I saw bodies with intestines falling out, many injured men, women and children. I even picked up the blown off leg of an infant who must have been about six months old.”

Christ Church Vicar Irshad Ashnaz said then, “Terrorists were not so focused on our community as they are now – They would have thought more people would gather at Easter. Perhaps, it is time for the government to turn their attention towards us also.”

An aggrieved Pope Francis was so taken aback by the tragedy that he issued a statement from the Vatican condemning it in the strongest possible terms, and demanded immediate remedial action by the Pakistan government.

Pakistan civil society also condemned the incident and laid the blame for at the government’s doorstep

Farrukh Haideri, a lawyer, said, “The government has failed to provide protection to the people.”

Pakistani Christians are convinced that they are becoming increasingly victimised since the launch of the US-led international war on terror in October 2001. Churches and Christian residential colonies have almost always been targeted on false blasphemy charges.

Salamat Gill, the Bishop of Lahore, has said, “There has never been any brutality from our side. Whenever there has been violence, it has been from the other side. I demand that religious scholars take action against this; the government should take action, the army chief should take action. How are we going to suffer like this?”

Human rights violations against the minority Ahmadiyya community have been systematic and allegedly state-sponsored to gain the support of Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan. In 1984, the martial law-run government promulgated the anti-Ahmadiyya Ordinance XX that added Sections 298-B and 298-C in Pakistan Criminal Code.

These draconian sections relate to the misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles etc.reserved for certain holy personages or places, and are punishable by imprisonment that may extend to three years, and also be liable to pay a fine.

Through this ordinance, Ahmadiyya Muslims were deprived of most of their basic human rights and their freedom of faith.

There has also been severe persecution of Hindus by Muslims in Pakistan since its formation in 1947. Increasing Islamisation has caused many Hindus to leave Hinduism and seek emancipation by converting to other faiths such as Buddhism and Christianity.

The Hindu population in Pakistan is estimated to be around 1.5 percent of the total population from a high of 23 percent in 1947.

Pakistan’s citizens have had serious Shia-Sunni discord as well. Some see the April 1979 execution of deposed President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on questionable charges as the precursor of Pakistani Shia-Sunni strife.

Attacks on minorities are generally attributed to banned militant organisations of Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith (Salafi) backgrounds.

Updated On: May 18, 2016