Ahmadi sect residents visit a cemetery at Rabwah in Chiniot district of Punjab province in Pakistan in this March 2017 file photo. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
Muhammad Usman must travel to Rabwah city in Pakistan's Punjab province every month so that his father can receive treatment for his ailing heart.
"His valves were damaged after he had a heart attack last September. But we can't find the kind of healthcare facilities or machines he needs at our local hospitals," the Sunni Muslim told ucanews.com.
On doctors' recommendations, the software engineer admitted his elderly father to the Tahir Heart Institute, an Ahmadi-sponsored hospital in Rabwah, 45 kilometers from his hometown Sargodha.
"The heart specialist charges just 280 rupees [US$2] per visit. The prescription drugs also cost about 50 percent less than what we would pay elsewhere," he said.
Usman decided to take his father to the Ahmadi hospital despite the stigma he knew this could potentially generate among mainstream Muslim neighbors who regard the Ahmadi as pariahs and heretics.
Pakistan's 5-million-strong Ahmadi community faces many challenges and persecution at the hands of majority Sunni Muslims and a legal system that protects Sunni interests, they claim.
Activists say they are punished for their belief system, which posits sect founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet and Masih Maud as the promised Messiah, or a metaphorical second coming of Jesus. This is considered heresy in mainstream society.
As a result, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared them non-Muslims via a constitutional amendment in 1974, one year into his four-year term of office, after he had already served as president for nearly two years.
Zia-ul-Haq, a four-star general who served as the nation's sixth president from 1978-88, followed up on this by promulgating an ordinance that made it a punishable offense for Ahmadis to practice Islam.
From April 1984 to the end of the last year, statistics show that 265 Ahmadis were killed in Pakistan, with 386 assaulted for their faith, and around 100 Ahmadiyya places of worship demolished, sealed, set on fire or forcibly occupied.
At least 69 have been denied burial in common cemeteries while the families of 39 deceased Ahmadis have had to watch their loved ones' remains disinterred due to disputes.
Meanwhile, the government of Punjab has banned the written works of the sect's founder and prohibited the publishing of the Quran or any of its translated versions by Ahmadis.
Moreover, Ahmadis are not allowed to hold open-air rallies, conferences or sports events in Rabwah, the sect's headquarters in the country. The ban has been in place for 35 years.
Pouring fuel on the fire, about 35 members of the municipal committee of Sialkot city in Punjab demolished a house of great historical significance to members of the Ahmadi community all over the world last year.
Later, a mob of 600 men demolished a nearby Ahmadi place of worship.
An Islamist religious sect called the Movement of the Finality of Prophethood (Tehreek Tahafuz e Khatme Nabuwat) has been openly calling for its adherents to attack Ahmadis.
This, coupled with the assassination of visiting Canadian-American cardiologist Mehdi Ali Qamar in Rabwah in 2014, led the Tahir Heart Institute to beef up its security.
The broader Ahmadi community has also adopted protective measures as they also fear for their safety.
"Day patients must now use the hospital's heavily guarded back entrance," said Amir Mehmood, who handles communications for the sect.
"The staff never mention which town the patients come from, when they speak by phone, because we want the doctors to treat them without any fear of reprisal."
Mehmood said Ahmadi doctors from around the world volunteer their services at various hospitals, including the heart institute in Rabwah, for more than a month at a time, and at their own expense.
He said the medical practitioner who was slain in 2018 had been on a mercy mission at the time.
In lieu of a government-run health facility, the Tahir Institute is one of two hospitals in the city managed by Ahmadis. The community also sponsors eight schools and two universities there.
"Five of our educational institutes, including a university, have remained in the hands of provincial authorities since 1972, when the government nationalized all schools and colleges run by religious minorities in Punjab and Sindh," Mehmood said.
"Most of the church-run schools were returned between 1985 and 1995. But we were never able to wrest back control of ours, despite the fact we still pay 10 million rupees [US$140,000] a year in school expenses.
"And no bishops have ever visited our town, either Catholic or Protestant."
To avoid pejorative terms like marzai — a slur that plays on the rank of nobleman or prince — or qadiani — a reference to Qadian, birthplace of the "prophet" Ahmad — Ahmadi students who attend universities outside Rabwah generally prefer to hide their faith.
But they can still be identified by fairly easy giveaways, such as sticker slogans on their notebooks that read "Love for All, Hatred for None," meaning they still run the risk of being targeted because of their faith.
Qadian is located in Gurdaspur district of the Indian-controlled side of Punjab, where the sect was first established in 1889.
However, Rabwah, which sits on the banks of the Chenab River, is now considered a sanctuary for Pakistani Ahmadis.
Police guards and young Ahmadi volunteers protect the 70 or so places of worship for their faith in the city.
Forbidden from using loudspeakers to announce calls to prayer, known as Azaan, locals strike stones on nearby electric poles to attract their respective congregations.
Despite being on opposite sides of the Indo-Pakistan border, Qadian and Rabwah hold a shared belief in the Bahishti Maqbara, or "heavenly graveyard."
"They refer to the burial ground for tithe givers as 'heaven'. The neighboring graveyard for other members of our community is mocked as being hell. They say we take soil from Bahishti Maqbara and put it in the food we cook for other people. One woman even asked me if we eat cats," said Mehmood.
Saleem-ud-din, a community spokesperson, said he has no faith in the new government of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. The minority community has been boycotting polls over a separate electoral list that requires them to register as "non-Muslim" voters.
"We had high hopes when Khan added Dr. Atif Mian, a member of the Ahmadi faith, to his Economic Advisory Council," he said.
"But due to adverse pressure from clerics and their supporters, Khan made his first U-turn less than a month after becoming premier and dismissed the Princeton University professor.
"Ours is a tale of tyranny. None of our nation's leaders have the integrity to challenge the hate literature and hate speech directed at Ahmadis. We have been victims of state-sponsored religious intolerance for as long as I can remember. An impartial political system is the only solution."
Last year, the National Assembly passed a resolution to drop the name of the country's first Nobel laureate, nuclear physicist Abdus Salam, from a top Islamabad university due to his Ahmadi faith. Quaid-e-Azam University had formerly named its physics department after Salam, the most respected scientist the country has ever produced.
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