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Are minorities in Pakistan really free?

As the country celebrates its 70th Independence Day, minorities are forgotten by both society and the state

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Are minorities in Pakistan really free?

Pakistani residents carry a national flag as they drive around to mark the country's 70th Independence Day, in Karachi on Aug. 14. (Photo by Asif Hassan/AFP)

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Every year Independence Day comes early for religious minorities in Pakistan, thanks to Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister who was assassinated.

On Aug. 11, National Minorities Day, there were banners of non-Muslim politicians greeting religious minorities alongside the roads of major cities. For minorities, such a government-sanctioned display is rare, as Christmas and most Hindu and Sikh festivals are celebrated indoors.

Among the banners I saw in front of the Punjab assembly in Lahore, there were a few with the image of the nation's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah. One banner quoted his speech to the country's new constituent assembly in August 1947, a few days before the partition of British India into the two independent nations of Pakistan and India.

"You are free. You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state," Jinnah had said and which this particular banner scripted.

The speech, which advocates religious freedom and equality, was regularly aired on Radio Pakistan until 1977 when General Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler at that time, used "Islamization" as a political tool and declared martial law the same year. The audio recordings of Jinnah's speech were lost. However, after years of searching, Christian activists were able to recover the original text from the newspaper archives of Dawn, founded by Jinnah.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and minority affairs minister, was arrested on charges of treason for publicizing the speech in a seminar in Islamabad in 1995. Bhatti, was instrumental in designating Aug. 11 as National Minorities Day in 2009. Two years later he was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital city Islamabad. In a pamphlet dropped beside Bhatti's body, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The pamphlet said that Bhatti was killed because he was a blasphemer.

Peter Jacob, former executive secretary of the Pakistani Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, believes the word "minority" can actually help in protecting the rights of non-Muslims.

"Instead of refuting the existence of minorities, the work of ensuring the protection and their rights and equality can be done in a better way by acknowledgement of their religious, linguistic, ethnic and national identities," he said in a message shared on social media last week.  

Pakistan, carved out from British India was created Aug. 14, 1947 in the name of Islam after Muslims of the Indian subcontinent called for a separate homeland. 

Although Jinnah stated that citizens may belong to any religion as it has nothing to do with the business of the state, a resolution proclaiming that the future constitution of Pakistan would be modeled on the ideology and principles of Islam was kept as a preamble of the constitution.

In 1985, when it was made an integral part of the text, Pakistan became an Islamic republic, and the Council of Islamic Ideology and the Shariah (Islamic) court were established.

Many Islamic laws were passed, including blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinance (Islamic criminal code). Not surprising, as more than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities.

Christian leaders have long campaigned against the misuse of blasphemy laws that have led to many incidents of mob violence. The law mandates that anyone who "blasphemes" the Quran is to be handed a death sentence.

Rights campaigners say that the laws are often used by people to settle personal scores and spread terrorism.

Catholic educators also maintain that textbooks used at school are written with "a biased mindset" by Muslim writers who do not make allowances for the teachings of religions other than Islam.

The Catholic Church, which operates more than 500 schools, has often criticized the syllabus for praising only Islamic personalities while presenting followers of other religions as infidels and depicting Christianity negatively.

Moreover, textbooks quote excessively from the Quran, even in science texts. It raised the particular concern that minority students' unfamiliarity with these texts could leave them open to accusations by people exploiting the country's blasphemy laws.

Another pressing demand for Christians is the restoration of separate electorates for non-Muslim communities, so that they can directly vote for their own leaders, who are then accountable to the people and not their respective parties.

Under the current system, religious minorities join others in voting for local representation in the national and provincial assemblies. The Muslim leadership of the mainstream political parties only select non-Muslim candidates by granting them tickets for the few reserved seats for minorities.

While Pakistan celebrates its 70th anniversary of independence this month, religious minorities wonder if every Pakistani citizen is truly independent. 

Today we stand not as a nation but as a crowd led by the policies of reactionary groups. Minorities are forgotten by both society and the state, leaving them desperate and with no choice but to support any change in the system in the hope of securing better days. They will remain insecure until their leaders set their priorities straight and return to the dream of our founding father. 

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